By Larry Birns and Kelsey Strain
As the April 2009 Summit of the Americas drew to a close in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama’s statement that the U.S. was prepared to seek new relations with Cuba favorably resonated with the assembled Latin American leaders. But up to now, only minimal progress has been made in implementing a new policy, with the exception of relaxed restrictions on travel and remittances for Cubans living in the United States. Echoing the same formulaic slogans uttered by former U.S. presidents for half a century, Obama, on the relatively rare occasion that he has anything to say about Latin American issues, continues stress a “wait and see” approach, in which Havana will have to earn the right to be a negotiating partner.
Undeniably, in the year and a half following the 2009 summit, Cuba repeatedly has demonstrated its willingness to begin thawing its frozen ties with Washington, giving Obama a timely opportunity to make substantial changes in U.S. policy towards the island. However, since then, the administration has appeared to be increasingly uninterested in moving matters forward. Placing the Cuba issue within the broader context of U.S.-Latin American relations, the hope for a bold revision of hemispheric policy under Obama’s administration has been diminished. Simply put, U.S.-Latin American diplomacy hovers alarmingly close to nonexistence, and is almost indistinguishable from what it was during the Bush presidency. What is more, it is unlikely that much will change with a right wing majority-Republican House taking over in January.
The Implications of the Mid-Term Election Results
Although a handful of surviving House liberals and centrists will continue to maintain a strong opposition to travel restrictions and the trade embargo, Cuban policy is likely to remain on the backburner for the time being in Washington, if not completely at a standstill. Veteran Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, herself a Cuban-American, is expected to block any remaining efforts to change the U.S.’s modest policies. Taking over as chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will replace Democratic Representative Howard L Berman, who collaborated with Republican Senator Richard Lugar in April 2009 to formulate a convincing argument in favor of terminating the embargo.
Ros-Lehtinen’s track record and her sustained, aggressive stance on Latin American issues demonstrate that she has little tolerance for regional dissidents who oppose the United States’ hemispheric policies. Her extremist line of moderation when it comes to the U.S.-hemispheric issues is shockingly uncompromising. For example, in 2006 she candidly stated, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.”1 Additionally, she has supported every coup that has attempted to overthrow left-leaning governments in Latin America. In 2002, shortly after the coup in Venezuela, she declared that Venezuelan Pedro Soto, who called for Hugo Chávez’s overthrow, was a “great patriot,” despite the fact that Chávez had been elected through a fair and democratic process. In a similar situation, she strongly supported last year’s coup in Honduras, and she continues to help block any movement by U.S. diplomats favoring dialogue with Venezuela and its fellow ALBA nations.
Bill H.R. 4645, known as the Travel Restriction Reform and Trade Enhancement Act, would end travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans—a very significant change in U.S. policy. Nevertheless, the bill has remained stationary for months now, with no signs of forward movement. With Ros-Lehtinen as chairwoman, it is certain that any movement in favor of a detente will be blocked at the passing.
Allied with Ros-Lehtinen will be newly elected Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has taken a strongly defined stance against lifting sanctions on Havana. The son of Cuban-exiles, Rubio aspires for the U.S. to eventually have a close relationship with post-Castro Cuba, and has made it clear that he would only approve of lifting the embargo after the Castro regime has been replaced. Rubio insists that Cuba’s economic problems are not due to the embargo, but rather a result of “socialism and incompetence…[which are] both the same thing.”2 Furthermore, he insists that the Castro regime benefits the most from Cuban-American travel to the country and remittances, which he alleges help fund their operations. Early in his campaign, Rubio proclaimed, “Our message to Hispanics is going to be driven by values.”3 But on closer inspection, these ‘values’ veil certain contradictions. For instance, after facing pressure from the conservative right, Rubio reversed his opposition to SB1070, choosing to support the Arizona immigration legislation, which gives law enforcement officials the right to ask for the documentation of any individual they believe to be illegal.4
For Miami legislators, it appears that despite a whole series of initiatives that should inspire negotiation on Washington’s part, Castro has not provided sufficient concessions to persuade the U.S. to move ahead with lifting restrictions. Indeed, by the Castro brothers’ actions and rhetoric, there is solid ground to believe that the Cuban leadership has shown a genuine desire to make transformative changes to the island’s policies, but these changes have not received acknowledgement from the Obama administration or from incoming Republican legislative leadership. After the summit, President Castro made it clear that he welcomed conversation with the U.S., provided that such a conversation is a balanced, two-way dialogue. Castro was open to discussing “anything” with the United States as long as both the Cuba and the U.S. were permitted to raise issues that they felt were pertinent.
In addition, after Fidel Castro, who remains head of the Communist party, suggested in September that the Cuban economic model was no longer working, Raúl revealed his plans to break Cuba from the traditional state socialist mold by privatizing more businesses. He projected that, by early 2011, 500,000 jobs would be cut in order to reorganize the labor force, 90 percent of which would be from the state sector. Eventually, the government will prepare to lay off close to one million employees, in the hope that they will find employment within a private sector that has been liberalized by means of moderating restrictions imposed on private enterprise. In addition, President Castro intends to reduce government handouts, such as food rations, which he believes are preventing productivity gains in Cuba.
Moreover, President Castro made the decision last July to release 52 political prisoners who were to seek asylum in Spain over the following three to four months. Although a small number of political prisoners remain after Castro’s November deadline, the releases demonstrate the Cuban president’s willingness to address one of the nation’s most controversial human rights issues.
Most recently, President Castro called for the congress of the Communist Party to convene for the first time in fourteen years, though it was originally supposed to be held every five. He issued this call during a meeting with Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, on November 8th. Castro announced that the “Sixth Congress will concentrate on solving problems in the economy, on the fundamental decisions updating the Cuban economic model, and will outline the economic and social policy of the party and the revolution.”5 A document entitled “Guidelines of Economic and Social Policy” contains all of the president’s plans for Cuba’s economic future, and will be presented to the congress when it convenes. While he maintains, “…only socialism is capable of overcoming difficulties and preserving the gains of the revolution,”6 Raúl Castro will discuss his plans to reduce the state’s hold on Cuban society.
Such initiatives coming from Havana, however, apparently have not proved sufficient for President Obama, and these positive developments will likely go unacknowledged by ideologues such as Rubio or Ros-Lehtinen, despite the fact that their unwavering hard-line views on Cuba no longer seem to accurately reflect widely held opinion.
Change: The Sensible Will of an Overwhelming Majority
On October 26th, the U.N. voted to condemn the embargo for the 19th consecutive year, declaring the sanctions against Cuba a “cruel Cold War anachronism.” Altogether, 187 member states voted in favor of the U.S. embargo’s termination, while just two (the U.S. and Israel) voted in favor of upholding it. Russia, China, Venezuela, and even close allies to the U.S. such as Canada and Brazil continue to invest in Cuba’s natural resources, tourism, and biotechnology.
Advocacy for U.S-Cuban policy reform prevails not only among the majority of U.N. member-nations, but also within a new generation of the Cuban-American community, a group formerly renowned for its hard-line views on the subject. Indeed, recent polls indicate a growing consensus among a new generation of Cuban-Americans and the broader American public: the U.S. should seek a new direction for its Cuban policy. In fact, in 2009, 64 percent of Cubans and Cuban-Americans residing in the U.S. supported a change in policy, with 50 percent indicating that they “strongly support” such developments. The groups polled were more divided in regards to the commercial embargo, which has been hindering Cuba’s economic growth for over 40 years; 42 percent believe it should be continued, while 43 percent support its termination.7
As former U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Wayne Smith, explains, “There is a small minority blocking the sensible will of the majority.” Despite such a forceful push for reform across the globe, Washington has repeatedly failed to show a willingness to alter its Cuban policy. A misreading of the conciliatory attitude from Miami’s Cuban community has kept timorous Washington politicians from daring to think boldly when it comes to Cuba. In spite of a new congressional make-up and a desk filled with challenges coming from around the world, President Obama’s commitment to “new relations” with the island should be seen through. Given the new environment in which he will be working, a normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations will only happen if Obama makes it a primary objective, should he decide that it is worth the political investment.
References for this article are available here
This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Associate Kelsey Strain