Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"We have to update our policies"

President Obama doesn’t often talk about the situation in Cuba. 

When he touched on the topic two years ago, before his re-election, he spoke as if no changes were taking place in Cuba – no release of political prisoners, no expansion of small enterprise.

Last Friday in remarks at a Miami fundraiser, his view was different: “We’ve started to see changes on the island.”  He didn’t specify, but he could have mentioned that restrictions on cellular phones, overseas travel, home sales, and Cuban stays in tourist hotels have been lifted; and that an opening to small entrepreneurship has moved about 300,000 Cubans into legal private sector employment.

These developments don’t change the fact that Cuba remains a one-party state with one-party elections, state-controlled media, limits on free assembly, and more.  But they do show movement of a kind that has not been seen in Cuba before – movement that in any other context would be seen as a diplomatic opportunity by the Obama Administration. 

Which is why the other nugget in the President’s remarks is interesting: that in U.S. policy toward Cuba we have to be “creative” and “thoughtful” and “we have to continue to update our policies.”  

He continued: “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

The President’s first-term changes in U.S. policy have had a positive impact.  Cuban Americans can visit their families and send money without restriction, and many are investing in family businesses and even helping relatives on the island to buy new homes.  As for the other 312 million Americans, those not of Cuban descent, travel remains highly regulated but the President’s liberalized regulations are enabling many thousands to go to Cuba.  When you add the fact that Cuba virtually ended travel restrictions on its own citizens, the result is an increase in communication and exchange in both directions.

If the Administration does “update our policies,” there are all kinds of possibilities even with legal restrictions in the Helms-Burton law that bar a complete lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations.

And if President Obama is really taking the long view back to 1961, maybe he will think about the posture he would adopt toward Cuba if he had not inherited a set of policies that have piled up year by year, like old junk in a closet, ever since the Kennedy Administration. 

Hopefully, he will take the long view and break at least two barriers.

The U.S. embargo was conceived as a means to bring down a Cuban government that enjoyed popular support, had no effective opposition, and would only be threatened if U.S. sanctions would deny “money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”  That is the line of reasoning in this April 1960 State Department memorandum. 

No one expects the embargo to have such an impact today.  But still the foundation of our policy, fully embraced by President Obama, is the idea that U.S. interests are somehow advanced by harming the Cuban economy through economic sanctions.  Today’s embargo has exceptions – we sell food and medicine, and U.S. travelers bring considerable revenue to Cuba – but all other trade is banned, investment is not allowed, and our sanctions attack other countries’ trade, investment, and financial relations with Cuba.  Embargo proponents say these are sanctions against the Cuban government, but you can’t hurt an economy without hurting the people who live in that economy. 

If the embargo didn’t exist, it’s hard to imagine that President Obama would invent it today.  He lacks the power to do away with it but he can alter it, and he can send a signal that today – especially as Cuba’s economy is changing in ways that are expanding Cubans’ economic freedoms – the United States does not want to block economic improvement in Cuba.

Then there is the issue of diplomacy.  Even in the absence of full diplomatic relations there is ample contact between our governments, but what is missing is a dialogue that goes beyond the issues that are almost imposed on us as neighbors: migration, maritime rescue, drug enforcement, etc. 

In the case of Iran, President Obama is trying to solve the nuclear issue through diplomacy and he seems to have a larger goal of improving overall relations if the security issue can be solved.  To that end, he quietly reduced enforcement of certain economic sanctions once the new Iranian president was elected.

The stakes are not as high in Cuba because there is no security threat.  But there is opportunity – to achieve more on “neighborhood” issues including those that affect U.S. security, to find a way to get USAID contractor Alan Gross released, to encourage Cuba’s role in ending Colombia’s guerrilla conflict, to build greater contacts with a government that is on a path of change and will soon hand the reins to the next generation.  And then to use a stronger, more productive relationship to make a stronger, more productive pitch for human rights.

Cuban officials, alas, are not cream puffs.  They will have demands involving prisoners of their own in U.S. jails, a terrorist who downed a Cuban airliner in 1976 and now lives freely in Miami, and more.  They tend to invoke a century of reasons to resist U.S. recommendations about their domestic affairs.  But they say they want improved relations, so there’s a lot to test, depending on how “thoughtful” and “creative” our President decides to be.

More: coverage of the fundraiser where the President spoke from the Herald and TV Marti (video).