A New Beginning with Cuba or a Missed Opportunity?
Speaking to Latin American leaders at an OAS summit in Port of Spain in April of 2009, President Obama declared, “the U.S. seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day." His comments followed a White House announcement that the U.S. would lift restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, fulfilling a campaign promise that Mr. Obama made in an April 2007 op-ed in the Miami Herald. In that article, then-candidate Obama stated that: “the primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways.” Critics cautioned that Obama would upset Miami Cubans costing him important votes in a crucial electoral State. “Why, in a Tuesday op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, would he challenge the Cuban-American elders and call for dismantling President Bush's hefty restrictions on Cuban-Americans making visits and sending money to relatives in Cuba?” asked Time magazine. In the end, Barack Obama won over 35% of the Cuban-American vote, more than any other Democratic presidential candidate in modern history.
Nearly two years after President Obama called for a “new beginning” in U.S. Cuba relations and a policy focused on helping the Cuban people rather than on hurting the Cuban government, there is little, if anything substantive, one can point to that sets this President apart from any of his predecessors when it comes to U.S. policy toward Cuba. In fact, the goodwill President Obama earned from his Latin American colleagues following his lifting of family travel restrictions, which put Cuban leaders on the defensive for the first time in 50 years, quickly faded as Havana ran out the clock. Washington squandered its opportunity to continue to press Cuban leaders by conditioning further changes in U.S. policy to steps taken by Cuban leaders. This conditional approach served Cuban leaders well as it gave them control over U.S. policy at a crucial time in Cuban history.
Then, in August of this year, following an announcement by the Cuban church that Raul Castro had agreed to release 52 political prisoners, there appeared to be an opportunity for the President Obama to make good on his promise of a “new beginning” in U.S.-Cuba relations. For a time it looked as if that was just what he planned to do. In August, White House officials speaking on the condition of anonymity to New York Times reporter Ginger Thompson leaked a planned announcement that the Administration intended to expand “people-to-people” exchanges and expand and clarify telecom regulations toward the island. Many Cuba-watchers in Washington believe that the President and the Secretary of State had already signed off on the move. Despite the President’s earlier claim to not let politics get in the way of doing what’s right, the Administration “postponed” the much-anticipated announcement until after the mid-term elections following pressure from Florida politicians who are deeply invested in the status quo.
Today, five months after the White House non-announcement that reportedly had been approved by both the President and the Secretary State was delayed for political reasons, a lot has changed in Havana and Washington. Unfortunately nothing has changed in Washington’s policy toward Cuba. In Havana, Cuban leaders have released 41 of the 52 peaceful dissidents imprisoned in 2003 and embarked on a process of unprecedented economic reforms, the type of “critical steps” President Obama had suggested were necessary precursors to a “new beginning” between the two nations. Last month, the BBC News Agency reported that Cuba and the U.S. had “reached an agreement with money transfer company Western Union to eliminate the taxes that were previously imposed for remittances in Cuban convertible pesos,” a move President Obama had requested from Cuban leaders. Meanwhile, in Washington, there has still not been any announcement from the White House and the results of the mid-term elections have only emboldened defenders of the status quo further, making a policy shift toward a focus on helping the Cuban people less likely.
Has a White House announcement on people-to-people travel and telecom regulations been postponed indefinitely? The arguments defenders of the status quo offer against moving forward with a “new beginning” are the same they offered before the President lifted restrictions on family travel and remittances. “The biggest problem with the announcement is the timing is all wrong. Not only are any policy changes that could be construed as lessening the isolation of the Castro brothers' barbaric and unrepentant regime counter-productive at this point, they muddy the real issues at hand,” wrote Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy online in August of 2010. This logic runs perfectly contrary to the President’s stated policy that “the primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways.”
I take the President at his word when he says that he doesn’t let political considerations dictate good policy. In at least the case of Cuba policy however, it appears that some at the White House have done exactly that. However, in his 2008 campaign strategy, President Obama has already proven that smart policy toward Cuba translates into support in Florida. Doing the right thing with Cuba policy at this crucial time may very well be his best opportunity for a new beginning.