Obama and Cuba

President-elect Barack Obama campaigned in favor of changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, but it is too soon to tell how much U.S. policy will change, or if an Obama Administration’s actions will lead to significant change in relations between Washington and Havana.

There is no doubt that relations will change between Cuban Americans and the island.  Obama has repeatedly called not only for a reversal of the Bush Administration’s severe restrictions on family visits and remittances, but to “immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island.”

That step will not change the minds of many Cuban Americans who, out of principle, choose not to travel to Cuba until the socialist government is no longer in power.

But it will change Miami.  Politically it will be a radical shift, from an Administration that sides with those who do not travel and who support restrictions on others’ freedom to travel, to one that sides with those who choose to maintain ties to the island and their relatives still there.  It will be a move, to use a phrase from Professor Damian Fernandez, from the politics of passion to the politics of affection.  There is no telling what impact will occur over time in Miami politics as Cuban Americans, no longer restricted to one visit every three years, board flights to Cuba whenever they like, even for a weekend.

A surge in family visits and remittances will change Cuba, too.  At minimum, it will increase the incomes of families who receive remittances and provide services such as lodging and transportation to visitors.  Some in Miami may bring seed capital to allow their relatives to have a small enterprise or a more productive farm; others may help relatives to buy new housing, with an eye to the possibility that they may inhabit it someday.

Obama’s intention in this regard is both humanitarian and political – there are “no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans,” he says.  “It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.”

The new Administration’s second policy shift involves diplomacy, and is not so clear.

Last May, candidate Obama said: “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation.  We will set a clear agenda.  And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

That statement places Cuba in the category of Iran and North Korea, where Obama argues that the Bush Administration scored rhetorical points, but did not advance U.S. interests, by declining to engage in direct diplomacy.  Unlike those countries, however, Cuba has no nuclear program and poses no comparable security threat, so it is unlikely that the Obama Administration will place an urgent priority on talks with Cuba.  And Obama’s statements leave plenty of room to define the timing, scale, and agenda of any diplomatic approach toward Cuba.  A good place to start would be to begin or increase cooperation in areas that affect Cuba and the United States as neighbors: fighting drug trafficking, regulating immigration and curbing alien smuggling, protecting our shared environment.

The Obama approach to Cuba will be defined in the course of 2009, as his Latin America appointees take office and make decisions about the many facets of U.S. policy toward Cuba.  Will it continue to fund the USAID Cuba program, which has been used to support dissidents in Cuba, to organize support networks for dissidents in third countries, and to attempt (in vain) to influence EU policy toward Cuba?  Will it change the program’s priorities?  Will it continue to fund the unseen TV Marti?  Will it continue to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism?  Will it continue to apply U.S. economic sanctions against banks and companies in third countries that have financial transactions with Cuba?  Will it name its own “Cuba transition coordinator,” a post that rankled the national pride of Cubans, from officials to dissidents?  How will it respond if Congress presses for policies to increase contacts between Americans and Cubans?

The answers to these questions will define whether Obama merely adapts the Bush policy, or creates a Cuba policy of his own.

But even if his changes in these areas are minimal, the Obama approach will be distinct because of its tone, and because its approach to direct diplomacy and Cuban American travel break with key assumptions that underpinned the Bush policy: that there is nothing to be gained by diplomacy, and that contact between our societies is to be minimized because it risks transferring hard currency to Cuba.

The Bush policy toward Cuba has been marked by macho rhetoric, grandiose plans for Cuba’s future, and the idea that economic sanctions could precipitate political change.  The result is a marked absence of Americans and American ideas on the island at a time when Cuba faces the prospect of a generational change in its leadership, and has not defined how it will fully confront its serious economic and social policy challenges.

President-elect Obama would do well to look at the approach that Presidents of both parties followed toward Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  We pursued diplomacy to address objectives both large and small, and we allowed unrestricted citizen contact, knowing full well that the communist governments would not reciprocate by allowing their citizens to travel freely.

In those policies, widely viewed as successful, there was nothing remotely similar to the draconian, Soviet-style travel restrictions that Washington imposes on its citizens who want to see Cuba.

The single most important step an Obama Administration could take would be to repeal the Cuba travel ban.  Unrestricted travel would bring a surge in contacts between American citizens and private institutions and their Cuban counterparts, and an exchange of ideas and debate far superior to those generated by the Bush Administration’s USAID-funded activities that take place largely in third countries.  Cuban families would prosper, the flow of information would increase, and America would gain what it lacks now: real influence.

The author is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia and writes the blog The Cuban Triangle.

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