The "Low Point" in U.S.-Cuba Relations- One Year Later

Photo courtesy of Flickr/The White House

At roughly this time last year the headline of a Reuters article proclaimed, “U.S-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point.” The article chronicled a number of prickly moments between Washington and Havana, but largely attributed the backslide to the arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in late 2009 and  the unfortunate death of Cuban prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo which occurred just a few months later.

Given President Obama’s remarks about Cuba to Univision last week, one might conclude U.S.-Cuba relations have reached a sort of second nadir. In response to a question about the reforms currently underway in Cuba, the president said,

“For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”

While senior Obama Administration officials have been following those same talking points for months, (see Cuba Central’s helpful chronology here), to hear them again, precisely as Cuba begins to implement some of the wide-ranging policy reforms recently endorsed by its political leadership, is a troubling signal of where this Administration is on Cuba policy. Despite the past year being one in which Cuba began an historic process of reform and agreed to a major prisoner release brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, Obama’s comments have the ring of an all-too-familiar refrain that is increasingly incompatible with the facts on the ground in Cuba.   

This is, of course, not to say that the modest actions underway in Cuba are of the ideal nature and pace.  Cuba should immediately restore basic liberties such as the freedom of expression, association, and movement. Though the Cuban government is taking steps to facilitate private sector growth it could do exponentially more, and faster.

I would also be remise not to acknowledge that the president has taken some steps to advance his desire for “a new beginning with Cuba”, for which he should be applauded. He has expanded people-to-people travel, removed restrictions on family travel and remittances, re-instated the migration talks suspended by the Bush Administration and allowed for greater diplomatic contacts between our two countries.

These are all welcome policy changes, but they are low-hanging fruit.  The president need not fear taking bolder steps. His 2008 performance in Florida proved that a Democratic victory in this key swing-state does not hinge on the support of a shrinking community of hard-line Cuban exiles in South Florida. Nor should the president make his timetable for change contingent on Raul Castro’s. That said, if the Administration insists on making Cuba’s changes the criteria for ours, an accurate assessment of those changes is the only honest place to start.  

So if one is to use the March 2010 Reuters article as a data point in the evolution of U.S.-Cuba relations in the Obama Administration, I would have to surmise we’ve stalled out here at a low. In the event of an Obama victory in 2012, putting Cuba policy back on the table as a second term issue would be very real possibility. Without the political constraints of re-election, the president would be able to dismiss unfounded fears about the domestic political cost of changing Cuba policy and eliminate the travel and trade restrictions as the majority of Americans support him doing.

Until then, the Administration can and should engage Havana on important issues such as the release of Alan Gross, Cuba’s impending oil exploration, and counternarcotics.The longer both Washington and Havana postpone real change for another day, the greater the injustice to the American and Cuban people.

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