Secretary Kerry: Will He or Won't He Take On Cuba?

For the first time in over half a century, an American president may well have two cabinet secretaries who have been publicly and repeatedly critical of our stubbornly isolationist (and anachronistic) policy toward the island of Cuba. Though he got a bit of cold feet during his own run for president in 2004, President Obama’s new Secretary of State, former senator John Kerry has long criticized U.S. Cuba policy. His nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has never minced words when it came to our “outdated” approach to Cuba. Both men walk in (or hope to walk in) to their new jobs with long and clear records opposing U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

So should embargo opponents be getting their hopes up? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

If Chuck Hagel is confirmed, he obviously has very, very big and pressing matters to deal with, not least being how to respond to looming existential budget pressures. But it’s not such a stretch to envision this SecDef increasing military to military cooperation with Cuba where it makes sense and increases U.S. security. Security cooperation is a key area in the bilateral relationship that we can and should be increasing in our own interest, and it need not be tied to diplomatic breakthroughs. In fact, it is paramount that security cooperation that serves our interest not be bogged down by diplomatic considerations. De-linking our vital interests from diplomacy is something Chuck Hagel undoubtedly sees.

It is Kerry who has more of a minefield to navigate, if he chooses to navigate it at all, amidst all the other far more pressing concerns now on his plate.

On the one hand, he’s been a vocal critic not only of our general approach on Cuba but he’s identified specific programs that he considers non- or even counterproductive, including U.S. taxpayer-backed Radio and TV Marti broadcasting and USAID’s democracy promotion programs, which Kerry has suggested “provoked” the Cuban government to jail a U.S. government subcontractor, Alan Gross. There’s no telling how deep the new secretary plans to dig on the next budget, but it would be odd for these programs to continue business-as-usual under Kerry. Unless, that is, the White House intervenes. Given the outcome of the 2012 elections, which finally dispelled the myth that no president – especially a Democrat – could ease sanctions on Cuba and be re-elected to tell about it, it’s hard to imagine the White House doing so.

On the other hand, what does Kerry get for his trouble if he does drill deep enough into the Cuba programs under his purview? His former Senate colleague Bob Menendez, a Cuban American and staunch defender of the embargo, is not one to shy away from a fight, and surely less so with Kerry’s old gavel in his hand. (Though, with ethics allegations hanging over the new chairman, it’s not clear how long he may hold that gavel.) House Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Eliot Engel won’t be an ally, and will likely let committee colleagues Albio Sires and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen call the shots on Cuba.

And, then there’s the Cuban government. As much as many in the Cuban government (particularly the diplomatic corps)  want to reduce tensions with the United States and finally make real progress on long-standing grievances held by both sides, they aren’t desperate for the big thaw. Many U.S. analysts, including in government, speculate that this is because Cuba’s leaders don’t really want to change the relationship, that strife serves their needs better than would the alternative. That could be so, but there’s also a hefty amount of skepticism and pride on the Cuban side, as well. After so many decades and layers of what Cuba calls the U.S. blockade, Cubans are unwilling to have the terms of any ‘surrender’ dictated to them. In fact, they are bound and determined that there will be no surrender. They would argue, what is there to surrender but their government’s very existence, something the leadership obviously isn’t going to put on the table.

Many in the Cuban government question whether the U.S. would offer anything that truly matters to Cuba, or honor any commitments made. Arguably, the last deal the U.S. made good on was struck during the Missile Crisis of October 1963, and Cuba wasn’t even at the table for that. It’s a lesser known fact that the United States never fully implemented the 1994/1995 migration accords, which committed both nations to work to prevent migration by irregular means. The U.S. did stop accepting illegal migrants from Cuba found at sea, but it still accepts them when they reach our shores – thus dubbed our ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy. And with our generous adjustment policy offering a green card after one year, the incentive to make the illegal trip remains largely in place.

For the U.S., the key to any movement may truly be the Cubans’ release of Alan Gross, whose cause Secretary Clinton championed for three years, though her State Department was unable to work with the Cuban government for his release. As I've argued here before, the conservative Spanish government, no friends of the Cuban government, found itself in a similar position but took a far different approach (than has the U.S. for Gross) last year when a young Spanish politcian came to the island to work with dissidents and ended up convicted for vehicular manslaughter in the death of two dissidents. Whatever the U.S. missteps on Gross, there is surely a genuine desire to bring him home, and right or wrong, the U.S. had, under Secretary Clinton, essentially frozen relations over his case.

If you talk to Cuban diplomats you’re likely to hear that the Cuban Five are their key to moving forward. And while I believe that that is the Cuban position, I don’t think it’s the only, or necessarily the first way forward. The Cubans have a whole host of grievances they file under the heading ‘blockade’ that a determined, strategic and informed Secretary of State could begin to seriously address. The relationship could be addressed either by crafting a secret series of trade-offs (as did Kennedy and Khrushev), or, by starting with unilateral confidence building measures that either convince or pressure the Cubans to respond. Frankly, if it weren’t for Alan Gross, the smartest, swiftest and most effective policy of all could be to make all decisions based on the U.S. interest alone, without setting expectations for a Cuban response at all.

I don’t envy Secretary Kerry, because dealing with our useless Cuba policy, and the difficult bilateral relationship we seem surprisingly unable to navigate, won’t be quick or easy or simple. But, whether it’s just for the sake of Alan Gross, or whether to recover the long lost sanity in our policy toward Cuba, it is an endeavor whose time, and Secretary of State, has surely come.