It is Time to Make Your Move on Cuba, Mr. Obama

Obama, Cuba, travel measures

It would be hard to imagine a better opportunity to improve the people-to-people contacts between Cuba and the United States than the last two years.  Barack Obama won the presidency with a foreign policy platform emphasizing soft power and dialogue with friends and foes alike over hostility and unilateralism. The Democratic Party enjoyed a significant majority in Congress, with real chances of passing legislation allowing more travel and relaxing the conditions for the sale of foods and medicines to the island. Washington aside, on February 24, 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down from his government responsibilities and new winds of economic reforms and social liberalization began to blow in Havana.

Yet by the end of 2010, as the House of Representatives is changing hands, Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy has not offered up an alternative agenda, based on engagement and U.S. national interests, forcing the promoters of the status quo, in Havana, Washington and Miami to defend their intransigence. The changes in U.S-Cuba relations have been minimal and essentially driven by Obama’s gestures toward the politics of Cuban American community not by a new policy towards Havana.

President Obama deserves credit for ending the travel and remittances restrictions for Cuban Americans. Immigration negotiations between Havana and Washington were rapidly restored and the rhetoric of confrontation was significantly lowered. Furthermore, Secretary Hillary Clinton responded an inquiry by Senator Lugar about the bilateral relationship promising a general review of the policy towards the island. The Administration also increased the number of visas for Cubans travelling to the United States to cultural and academic exchanges.

But more visas and music are not substitutes for coherent engagement. In a sense, President Obama took the same approach of his predecessor George W. Bush in the Cuba policy conundrum. Both presidents have made any substantial dismantlement of the embargo, a policy that is contrary to U.S national interest, dependent on a major shift in Havana. This is unfortunate because the tit for tat maximalist approach of the Bush’s policy was essential part of the mechanisms by which U.S.-Cuba relations keep “re-editing the battle of the sixties”, twenty years after the end of the Cold War.  

To be sure, Havana deserves some responsibility for squandering some important opportunities for bilateral engagement. Most of its reformist steps and the release of prisoners came only in 2010. According to some of the leaked cables from the United States Interest Section in Havana, Cuban diplomacy has yet to answer Washington’s proposal to eliminate reciprocal diplomatic travel restrictions in both countries, restrictions imposed during the height of tensions with the Bush administration.

This delayed action from Havana is hardly surprising. It took time for Raul Castro to consolidate his power over the rest of the Communist Party factions, taming and placing Fidel’s confrontational spirit in his weekly columns. There are also substantial evidences that the Cuban communists profit from aspects of the political polarization between the two countries. They care first about their interest, not those of the Cuban nation.

That is precisely why President Obama and his advisors must read again some of his speeches in which he elaborated about the virtues of smart power and the merits of academic, cultural, educational and religious exchanges for American diplomacy, even when dealing with a reluctant partner. Obama has said that policies that increase American engagement with the societies of countries with an adversarial position to the United States are powerful tools to empower groups expanding human rights and to change the behavior of those governments.   In his 2008 speech at the Cuban American National Foundation, Mr. Obama promised to stop the old politicians’ practice of talking tough in Miami without doing anything of relevance in the political dynamics of the island.

Last August, most Cuba observers believed that a new policy, including a serious expansion of people to people activities between American and Cuban societies, had reached the president’s desk.  But by the fall, electoral politics entangled the measures to allow more travel.  Regardless of whose pressures (Senator Bob Menendez, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Kendrick Meek) paralyzed the White House announcement, the elections are over, and the White House must now see that its caution made no difference: even Democrats towing a hard line on Cuba lost their elections to a Republican tide.

President Obama is wrong if he believes the status quo is sustainable. The administration squandered two precious years to pro-actively fashion its own pragmatic and measured framework to manage U.S.-Cuba relations .  Now, Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio and the new Chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are headed to Washington not to work with the President on Cuba policy, but against him.  President Obama should not let their personal ideological visions overpower his more practical instincts.

In keeping with his stated intentions on Cuba, and on foreign policy more generally, it’s time for President Obama to allow broad purposeful travel to Cuba, regardless of what the government in Havana does, because it serves American national interests and values.  If not now, when?