Let Down on Cuba

– Obama administration hands over its Cuba policy to treasury Secretary Geithner and the Technocrat
– Where is Hillary?
– The President continues to forsake his supporters
– Prospects for a creative new policy towards Cuba flounder

On March 10, Congress passed a bill containing provisions that will relax travel, trade and remittance provisions within existing legislation, in a move toward implementing the pledges made by Presidential candidate Barack Obama while on the campaign trail. The House had passed the bill back on February 25, but it was expected to face major hold ups in Senate hearings, specifically opposition from Senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who both represent large Cuban-American constituencies. However, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner assured the two leading opponents of the legislation that the new regulations would essentially not be implemented.

The legislation contains $410 billion in spending authorizations while simultaneously lifting a number of restrictions on Cuba imposed by the Bush administration, which renewed travel limitations for Cuban Americans desiring to return to the island and tightened the decades-old trade embargo. Bush had introduced this punitive legislation after his inauguration in 2000 to please the anti-Castro Cuban exiles who had vociferously supported him during his campaign.

According to the Miami Herald, in a letter that Secretary Geithner sent to Nelson and Menendez, he assured them that the Obama administration would not enforce a liberalized interpretation of the bill’s provisions and that any changes which would be made would be only be implemented at a very slow pace.

Alarmingly, it appears that U.S. hemispheric policy under Obama will not substantially deviate from the status quo. U.S.-Cuba relations look set to remain a domestic issue rather than a foreign policy concern, with the Treasury rather than the State Department formulating U.S. strategy toward Cuba. Consequently, U.S.-Cuban relations, will likely remain in the technocratic hands of Geithner, who presumably does not have many sophisticated insights into the critical current state of affairs of U.S.-Latin American relations. The U.S. would do rather well to follow Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-IN) advice and entirely get rid of the embargo apparatus rather than continue a policy that has failed the country for 50 years.

While the current legislation is a worthy first step, it appears not to reflect this new regional reality and suffers from being too little and too late. It is unlikely to generate the much-needed transformative approach that Washington needs in order to regain international support for its policies. This modest piece of legislation coincides with Raul Castro’s launch of a major reconfiguration of the Fidelista regime in which he removed Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and de facto Prime Minister Carlos Lage from their senior positions.

New legislation
While campaigning in Florida, then presidential candidate Obama made several references to Cuba, in which he expressed a willingness to meet unconditionally with the Castro leadership, but added that he would keep the embargo in place. Obama did, however, call for expanded travel rights for Cuban Americans which would allow them to return to the island more frequently and remain there for a longer time. Obama also sought to ease regulations on sending remittances back to relatives on the island. These proposed changes were based both on shifting attitudes of Cuban Americans who are beginning to welcome more open relations with Cuba and recognize the ineffectiveness and counter-productiveness of current regulations.

The recently-passed legislation, which will shortly be signed by the president, seeks to maintain a minimalist commitment, by exclusively reversing the stringent laws and regulations of the Bush era. The new Bill will allow one trip per person to the island annually to visit relatives, instead of once every three years as is permitted under current rules. During that trip they will be able to remain on the island for an unlimited time, in contrast to existing regulations, limiting trips to a mere 14 days. The new legislation also increases the allowance visitors can spend per day in Cuba, and broadens the definition of relatives to include aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews; whereas in the past, only immediate family members were listed under the more restrictive definition of grounds for travel to the island. It remains to be seen how these apparent relaxations in law will translate into concrete policy in the wake of Geithner’s concessions to the senators.

The catalyst behind the new legislation was more than just vague rhetorical promises uttered by Obama during the campaign; one goal was to turn to a more open trade policy to help stimulate export earnings for the hard-pressed U.S. economy by expanding bilateral trade opportunities with Cuba. Under current legislation, U.S. agriculture and medical vendors could trade with Cuba, but had to be paid in cash, before the exports could leave the docks for Havana. The new legislation will allow for payment to be made after the products arrive on the island in the normal manner. This dispensation, along with a licensing procedure to expedite the sale of such items to the island, will open up new commercial opportunities. By removing some of the more needlessly harsh terms of the embargo, the new legislation would alter trading practices with the island, increasing the revenue generated by such exports, while hastening the process.

The Embargo was first enforced in 1962 under the Kennedy administration in response to the nascent Castro regime. The now woefully outdated two-way hostility that helped fuse the embargo in the spirit of the Cold War, has lost almost all international support and there is now almost a universal feeling that creative changes in Washington’s current Cuba policy are badly needed.

According to a report issued by the UN General Assembly in October 2007, the 192-member body “voted overwhelmingly in favor of ending the 45-year-old United States trade embargo against Cuba, marking the sixteenth year in a row… [that the body] urged the lifting of the stiff sanctions imposed on the Caribbean island in 1962.” There were only four votes in favor of maintaining the embargo: Israel, Marshall Islands, Palau and United States. With virtually no backing for the continued application of the embargo, the policy had become more of a vestigial organ fomenting a standoff between the two nations, rather than a meaningful policy with some prospect of success. While the new legislation will mark some progress, it certainly doesn’t go far enough to even begin the process of seriously normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which is what is needed to bring about any real change in the rest of the hemisphere.

The two sided opposition
While the House bill passed with a clear majority of 245 to 178, the opposition of anti-Castro Cuban American Senators such as Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), as well as Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has been unremitting. They also have been backed by a small but vociferous Miami delegation of hard-right representatives, who believe that “the [UN’s] recommendations largely focus on actions by the United States that will help the regime and provide it with legitimacy and resources,” as was stated in a lengthy speech by Martinez on March 3. The Florida senator also recounted the history of U.S. Cuba policy since Fidel took power, stating that while “U.S. policy is controversial…Standing up for the rights of the Cuban people is something that the U.S. has done since the Kennedy Administration and if that is controversial, it would seem more of a comment on others than on ourselves.”

Yet historically, U.S. policy has been ineffective in making an ascertainable impact on islander public opinion. While the Castro regime seemed to effectively function, at times using U.S. hostilities as a source of self legitimization, the Cuban nation continues to suffer in terms of shortages and an unsatisfactory standard of living.

Senator Menendez is using more than rhetoric and his trademark capacity for arrogance to leverage his opposition to the legislation; he even threatened to hold up the confirmation of Obama choices for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in protest against the Cuban “thaw” legislation. Menendez believes that the current wording of the bill will “be extending a hand while the Castro regime maintains its iron-handed clenched fist,” in remarks echoing those of Martinez. Now that the omnibus legislation has been passed, and the relaxation of anti-Cuban provisions would be witnessed, the new provisions would terminate in September, when the permanent legislation takes over from the temporary omnibus provisions.

Although, as we have seen, several anti-Castro senators strongly oppose the current bill for being soft on Castro and containing even additional reduction of restrictions than they would prefer, President Obama’s call for the retention of the embargo was little more than a gesture of good will for Miami. It was in keeping with the manner in which the White House’s recent incumbents have viewed Latin American policy-making as somewhat of a day trip and an area not worth a week’s vacation. Obama now needs to seriously reconsider an outdated and utterly sterile foreign policy towards Havana which was bequeathed to him by his predecessor, and abolish the embargo entirely. But this does not seem to be in the cards. The present policy is “ineffective” and has failed, according to the senior Republican member on the Foreign Relations Committee, the influential Senator Richard Lugar “to achieve its stated purpose of bringing democracy to the Cuban people.”

On February 23, the highly respected Indiana Republican issued a statement on U.S. Cuban policy in which he labeled the embargo as “obsolete” and bringing no advantages to the United States. Such a robust assertion by a senior Republican foreign policy pundit gives the Obama administration reason for concern. It projects the recently passed legislation as being a forceful agent for “change,” but more of the same just wont do. Nor does the new legislation envisage taking a determined series of additional steps to improve relations with what has become not only an increasingly important player in Latin America, but today represents an important symbol, in the person of Fidel Castro, who has outlasted eleven U.S. presidents in holding up a defiant definition of sovereignty and who has never failed to insist that Latin America’s essential need is to come out from the eagle’s shadow.

Senator Lugar’s Intervention
Moreover, developing ties with the island state is essential for the U.S. if it wishes to remain a relevant geopolitical player in the Western Hemisphere. Since Raúl Castro took power, Cuba has opened up or intensified preexisting strong relations with a number of left leaning countries both in the Americas and further abroad. A good number of Latin American leaders as well as Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have recently traveled to Cuba to strengthen relations, thereby further deflating the myth that the U.S. has the Castro regime on the ropes. Lugar’s report emphasizes that by “rejecting most tools of diplomatic engagement, the U.S. is left as a powerless bystander, watching events unfold at a distance.”

When Lugar points out that the new administration can now open doors for a fresh strategy on Cuba, his language inevitably implies criticism of the Bush administration’s policies. He observes that “recent leadership changes have created an opportunity for the United States to reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion, and open hostility.” The question is how his sortie will influence Obama. The President’s strategy of preserving the embargo as some kind of counter-weight to its non-existent bilateral relations with Cuba, sharply reveals how little the new president understands of current Latin American realities.

The Future
Raul Castro, on March 2, sprung a huge overhaul of the party leadership and the structure of Cuba’s government when he announced a dozen changes affecting the party administration, which at least in part appears to be an effort to demarcate Cuba under his leadership from Fidel’s reign. The changes included fusing ministries, demoting and promoting officials and restructuring the group of officials in line to take power after Raul. Perhaps most unanticipated in the personnel changes was the ousting of Felipe Perez Roque, who was viewed as the third most powerful man in Cuba and who was expected to lead a transition government after Raul stepped down. He was replaced by Bruno Rodriguez, who had worked directly under Roque. Raul had hinted at these changes for some time, in what may have also been an effort to open the way to bolstering communications with Washington. Rodriguez, a Westernized veteran diplomat with 11 years experience as Cuba’s delegate to the UN, has a firm grasp on US policy as a result of his time in New York. This could lead to improved talks between the Obama administration and Raul’s post shake-up government.

Under the opening moves proposed by President Obama, as exemplified by Geithner’s “clarifications” of the then pending omnibus legislation, the Obama administration is still holding on to the tattered embargo like an aging frat boy hanging around his old stomping ground trying to relive the glory days. What the Treasury Secretary fails to realize is that a strategy of containment and isolation is no longer a viable approach to U.S. -Cuban relations, since Havana has long since broken out from its confining jurisdiction fixed on it by Washington. That policy at first was dictated by a long list of those occupying the White House who had no problem maintaining a radical rightist ideological slant in their Cuban policy. Today’s geopolitical landscape makes it impossible to hold onto prior notions, as Cuba is already proving to be much different than what it was in previous decades. Cuba is no longer a proselytizing state attempting to broadcast its Revolution across Latin America, nor is it infiltrating its battalions into the African wars of liberation or providing an attractive territory for enemy military bases. The Cold War is long over, rendering the embargo entirely obsolete in this new era of globalization and heightened respects of sovereignty.

During her campaign for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton wrote in Foreign Affairs, “U.S. foreign policy must be guided by a preference for multilateralism, with unilateralism as an option when absolutely necessary to protect our security or avert an avoidable tragedy.” Of course, Cuba presently poses no security threat. Rather, Havana today provides a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to launch a policy of multilateralism and improve its relations with the Latin American region by summarily lifting the embargo, which has been described by Senator Lugar and a thousand other senior regional officials, as ineffective. Presidents Lula of Brazil, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia have made it quite clear that any real change in U.S. policy would have to begin with a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. Moreover, lifting the embargo would not only help to improve the quality of life for Cubans by opening the country to trade and foreign direct investment, it also would help to revive a struggling economy. If Clinton is to remain true to her pledge for greater multilateralism in U.S. diplomacy, it would be wise for her to make Cuba a priority item on this country’s foreign policy agenda.