March 2008

ON DAY ONE: Open Travel to Cuba

Some thoughts on what the next American president should do "On Day One":

This is part of a fascinating public policy outreach project organized by the Better World Campaign. There are lots of other offerings as well. . .

-- Steve Clemons

<em>The Washington Note</em> and <em>The Havana Note</em> Soon to Have More Cuban Readers

cuban face.jpg

Cuban President Raul Castro has started his reforms -- well, he did quite a while ago actually though few noticed. But the new news is that the Cuban government has removed restrictions on the sale of computers, DVDs, and video players inside Cuba.

Old story first. When I was doing research in Cuba last March, Fidel Castro was ill and Raul Castro had assumed the responsibilities of acting head of state. In the past during Fidel's tenure, ministers -- questioned by legislators in Cuba's National Assembly -- used to wait for the President to instruct them on how to respond to legislators and the public.

Raul Castro changed that -- and told the ministers that they needed to be accountable for the performance of the institutions for which they had responsibility. Competence was the signal he was sending -- accountability. And he was telegraphing that they ought not wait for dictates of political correctness from his office.

But what Raul Castro has done today is open the door for a new consumer appetite. He is allowing people to purchase -- completely unrestricted -- the vehicles for the consumption and transport of "culture." DVDs, computers, and video players are how American power and culture are really heard and seen around the world today -- not through Pentagon machinery.

But as things stand now, America won't allow its content into Cuba. As the embargo stands, we hope that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez fills the scarce bandwidth now available in Cuba and are giving him no competition.

Raul Castro is moving forward in a constructive direction. The U.S. needs to adopt a set of policies now that is less "self-destructive" of American interests.

The Washington Note and The Havana Note look forward to many more readers now in Havana and throughout the nation of Cuba.

-- Steve Clemons

Senator Dodd Challenges the Mindset

Though his campaign never caught the imagination of the electorate, Senator Dodd's forthright policy on Cuba ultimately helped leverage this exchange between Senators Clinton and Obama. Hot on the heels of his colleagues' letter to Secretary of State Rice, Senator Dodd, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Latin America, reiterates his position in today's Miami Herald.

The real question is whether one of the candidates for president will pick up on Sen. Dodd's argument that the U.S. embargo is really the backbone of the Castro regime. Simply removing that crutch, he argues, will do more to advance U.S. interests than just about anything else. If that's the case, any candidate in favor of sustaining the embargo, even conditioning U.S. policy on democratic change on the island, is really just being played by Havana.

Trade Can Help Cuba Move Toward Democracy

By Christopher Dodd

''If it were up to me, I would lift the embargo against Cuba the next day, and it would end your regime in three months,'' José María Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister, reported saying in a 1998 meeting with Fidel Castro.

Castro's response: ``I need the embargo, for this generation and the next.''

Telling words from a self-proclaimed hero of the people -- ''I need the embargo.'' The same embargo that was starving Cubans for decades was indispensable to their dictator. Castro was shrewd: He knew that isolation tightened his grip on Cuba and that America made an outstanding scapegoat for the failure of his revolution. In many ways, our misguided policies were responsible for his unnaturally long hold on power. In many ways, the embargo was Castro's best friend.

Last month, old age and illness did what our best efforts never could -- remove Castro from power. Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity, and a small window of time, to begin pushing Cuba toward democracy. But amazingly, the Bush administration is clinging to a 46-year-old policy of failure.

The reaction we have seen from the administration shows how deeply our foreign policy is trapped in rigid ideology. Any pragmatic case for continuing the embargo has been thoroughly undermined. It keeps families apart. It restricts the access of our farmers to Cuban markets.

And as Cuba strengthens its trade relationships, the economic impact of our embargo is progressively weakened. Even its moral symbolism verges on nonexistent: How can we swear off Cuba with a straight face, when we freely trade with countries that routinely violate human rights, such as Saudi Arabia and China?

We engage in trade with these nations not just to strengthen our economy, but because we have faith in the transformative power of American values and American culture carried by American trade. Of course, we don't expect that open markets will lead to open societies overnight, but some countries are riper for the transition than others. Cuba is one such country. Its rising generation of leaders, while still part of an authoritarian system, is markedly more comfortable on the world stage and less antagonistic to America than the declining generation represented by Castro.

The question is whether we will antagonize these new leaders -- or whether we will work with them to end political repression, protect civil society and establish free markets. If we choose the latter, wiser course, the last five decades will hold an unmistakable lesson:

With Cuba, isolation doesn't work. We should now take several strong steps to secure our role in Cuba's transition -- or risk sitting on the sidelines for another 50 years.

We should:

  • Act decisively to end trade sanctions. This means repealing the ill-conceived Helms-Burton and Cuba Democracy Acts, as well as amending the Trade Sanctions Reform Act. With the embargo lifted, our businesses will have access to Cuban markets, our struggling farmers will find more buyers for their crops, and Cuba will gain extensive exposure to American culture.
  • Break down the artificial barriers keeping Cuban Americans apart from their families in Cuba. Lifting caps on remittances and travel restrictions will speed the influx of democratic values -- and reduce an unnecessary hardship on Americans who want merely to assist their families overseas. Currently, the mail doesn't even travel regularly between the United States and Cuba, let alone passengers. As we lift travel restrictions, we should also begin negotiating regularly scheduled flights.
  • Open an American embassy in Havana. If we want any influence over Cuba during this crucial time, we must practice robust diplomacy.

    There's no better way to do that than having skilled diplomats pressing our interests in Havana, at all times and in person.

    Ending sanctions, connecting families and strengthening diplomacy -- this new policy of Cuban engagement is the most constructive response to Castro's demise. Some in the Bush administration might call such a policy ''soft'' -- but that represents the same mind-set that thought we could bomb our way to democracy in the Middle East.

    For far too long, American isolation has cemented a Cuban dictatorship. Today, that dictatorship may finally be starting to crack; how we seize this opportunity will determine whether it crumbles.

    U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.