The President’s Words Versus His Performance: One More Prong of His Presidency Shifting Towards the Democratic Centrist Wing of the Party

President Obama has not taken any decisive steps to veer away from Washington’s benighted, near half-century trade embargo against Cuba. By refusing to take advantage of the opportunity to reject a longstanding and morally-bankrupt policy, which has achieved very few successes and which has been based on hypocrisy, double standards, and inconsistencies, President Obama has turned his back on the possibility of a new beginning for U.S. policy towards Latin America based on constructive engagement. At this point, Obama is sadly not the U.S. president bringing “change” to the hemisphere as millions of North and South Americans had hoped. Rather, he has failed to fulfill his own foreign policy objective of reaching out to Washington’s unforgiving foes like the Castro brothers. The courage and political wisdom necessary to call for the termination of the embargo and new beginnings has proven devoid of stamina, replaced by a timorous approach composed of weak probes and minimal actions. It appears that the President does not wear the face of change for those who had reason to hope it would come about.

Remittances and Travel to Cuba

So far Obama has removed restrictions on remittances and travel of Cuban Americans to Cuba, but not for all Americans. In doing so he unfortunately has created two distinct classes of citizens each with different rights, a situation any democratic country would be wise to repudiate. It is disappointing that while Obama has the discretionary right to allow anyone to travel to Cuba, he has chosen not to utilize it. The new administration’s policies on Cuba thus far have merely mirrored the Clinton administration’s centrist approach. In effect, in regards to Cuba, we are witnessing something akin to President Bush’s or Clinton’s third term in office.

Obama has only revoked some of the more parochial aspects of Bush’s policy and has slightly softened Clinton’s draconic hard line on Cuba. Although Obama stated during his presidential campaign, “My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: ‘libertad,'” what new freedoms has he brought? The Cuban and American people are still kept a world apart, without any constructive steps that suggest a meaningful change lies ahead. In other words, Washington’s uninspired and lackluster policies toward Havana may please an anti-Castro militant, but not someone seasoned in the ways of statesmanship.

Cuban Embargo

Today, regarding Cuba, and more generally Latin America, we see unnerving similarities between the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations. Instead of following through on Obama’s promises that “After eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future,” the same deceptive excuses and cosmetic domestic changes have characterized his policy on Cuba. While Obama already has many controversial issues on his plate and it is clear that his actions reflect a desire to protect and preserve his presidency, this cannot be used to excuse what up to this point is an inept policy. His subsequent decision to continue the embargo confirms his failure to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained and elaborated. COHA Director Larry Birns has referred to Secretary of State Clinton’s recent decisions regarding Cuba as illustrating an inevitable move towards a centrist approach to Caribbean issues, much like those assumed in the Clinton years. In Obama’s campaign, according to Birns, “his progressive and left-leaning rhetoric belied his inability to protect and implement meaningful change. Even if he wanted to be the progenitor of a new generation of a bold new policy aimed at Cuba, he probably lacks the votes to implement what he has promised, without a bruising battle.”

Of course Obama has every right to define and protect his Presidential legacy as he sees fit, but not at the cost of forfeiting the extraordinary opportunity he has to dictate a new direction in hemispheric policy. Americans, as well as Cuban Americans, were promised a review of Latin American foreign policy, and that is what they expected. Since coming to office, it was not only Americans that were let down: average Cubans also are disappointed with the lack of productive policy decisions. Just a few days ago, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez echoed this sentiment: “Obama was elected on a platform of ‘change’ but with respect to the economic blockade against Cuba, there has been no change.”

Cuba: the Terrorist

Obama’s vocabulary of change is symbolically undermined by his lack of action regarding the embargo. It was announced on September 14 that he would extend the economic sanctions against Cuba under the Trading with the Enemy Act for another year. Established in 1917, the measure was utilized by the Kennedy administration to implement the trade embargo on Cuba in 1962. In 1996 the Helms-Burton Act was passed, codifying the various disparate laws affecting the embargo into a single bill. President Clinton saw to it that under Helms-Burton, the embargo could be lifted, but only with the approval of the U.S. Congress, and only once Cuba has begun an authentic transition to democratic political institutions. Thus, even if Obama decided against renewing the extension of Trading with the Enemy Act, the embargo would still hold unless revoked by Congress. However, such an act would have represented a symbolic outreach to Havana and the Cuban people.

There are Terrorists and “Terrorists”

One underlying problem that continues to hinder an effective dialogue with the Cuban government is that Havana remains on the State Department’s annual list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Cuba has been on the blacklist since March 1982, when it was added due to its close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Castro has long since backed away from his government’s policy of supporting what Washington would classify as terrorist organizations. The fact that Cuba remains on the list speaks to the hypocrisy of such a designation, since so many far more brutal nations are allowed to freely relate with the White House.

The reprehensible actions of the Cuban government over the past few decades pale in comparison to the Washington’s dedication over the past 50 years to violent and often clandestine terrorist operations inside Cuba. North Korea and Libya are examples of countries that continue to align themselves with such threats, but recently, purely on the grounds of expedience on Washington’s behalf, have had their names removed from the list. Yet Cuba remains, alongside countries like Iran and Syria, when Washington has not been able to make anything like a respectable case to justify this.

It is apparent that the removal of the name of North Korea was politically motivated, as there is plenty of evidence pointing to recent terrorist activities occurring in the country. What is absurd is that Cuba is still labeled an “enemy” of the U.S., despite Obama’s inspirational words of evidence of change taking place in the country. The removal of Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terror, as well as ending the 47-year embargo, would have been consistent with Obama’s vow of goodwill to governments throughout Latin America, and usher in a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations. Then there is the fact that Washington doesn’t have a scintilla of evidence to back up its terrorism charge.

Cuba: By Mail

On September 17, U.S. and Cuban officials began discussing the possibility of restoring direct mail service between Cuba and the United States. For the Obama administration, this is another small but welcome initiative in the right direction. Direct mail between the U.S. and Cuba has been suspended since 1963. Currently, even a simple first-class letter requires routing through a third country, a convoluted process that can take months to complete. Although resuming direct mail is an important step in establishing a positive relationship, it should be understood that restoring service is a mere minor gesture of goodwill, if the far greater effects of the embargo insupportably remain in place. Cuban officials have expressed their belief that the embargo has contributed to the widespread deterioration of postal buildings and a weakening of the infrastructure of the entire postal system, but this should not deter Washington from proceeding with these negotiations. The disparities should be emphasized however, between the steps Obama has indicated he is willing to take within the larger picture of U.S.-Cuban relations, which remain under a buffer of unhelpful special conditions which are a hindrance to any opening up of the political process.

A further outcome of the two-country dialogue on direct mail service is Cuba’s reasonable insistence that the restoration of commercial flights accompany the new mailing system. Although this last request remains a point of contention, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Department, said that overall, “We are satisfied with developments in this first meeting,” and called the talks “wide-ranging and useful.” In this respect, President Obama has started in a purposive direction; he now must show that he does indeed have “good intentions” towards Cuba by making these dialogues a reality.

A Look Ahead

On September 28, the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization will once again condemn Washington’s embargo on Cuba. This will be the 18th consecutive year that Cuban officials produce a report requesting relief from the economic restrictions forced upon them by the U.S. There is little question that once again the UN will vote to denounce it. The 2009 report, attributing $236 billion (using today’s dollar value) in damages over the past five decades to the embargo, outlines damages to Cuba’s education, health, agriculture and transportation, among other sectors.

While Obama certainly has too much on his plate internationally and domestically for any immediate dramatic moves toward Cuba, his decision to extend the Trading With the Enemy Act against Cuba for another year was a profound disappointment. Cuban officials accept the fact that, due to the Helms-Burton Act, Obama cannot repeal the embargo alone, but the baby steps of allowing family travel and the exchange of remittances is not enough of an equivalence when the costly and lethal effect of the embargo and years of covert operations against the Castro regime are taken into account. U.S. policy today does not emphasize “the dismantling of the blockade,” as the public was led to believe it would, but is focused only on providing a wisp of recompense for years of injustice. The result of the UN meeting on September 28 will chastise the U.S. for its embargo on Cuba, but it is up to Obama to put its words into action by aligning with Cuban authorities and together moving towards a future of mutual respect and cooperation. If Obama is to remain a worldwide emblem of hope and change, he will have to undertake the some political risk that is necessary to break with an old paralytic habit, by ushering in a new generation of Cuban-U.S. relations.

10 thoughts on “The President’s Words Versus His Performance: One More Prong of His Presidency Shifting Towards the Democratic Centrist Wing of the Party

  • September 28, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    So disappointing. At the same time, not very surprising as Obama's focus for change has always been on the United States, not on foreign policy. Furthermore, he gave many indications in his campaign speeches of his basically conservative bent. I think we expect him to be radical or change-oriented simply because he is the first black president, but of course it meakes sense that to be able to become president as a black person, one would have to be fundamentally conservative (i.e., a black and radical person is not going to break through to the first black presidency). I hope there will be some campaigns or organized actions to put pressure on this administration to make some real changes in US / Cuban relations.

  • September 28, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Dear Gretchen, there are already campaigns in the USA, please join them! And so are such campaigns worldwide. But they are ignored by the mainstream medias, worlwide as well. For instance: Since more than 7 years I joined the campaign to free the "Cuban Five" in Germany. – "The Cuban Five – Emblem of a Nation’s Convictions" as Arnold August, a Canadian author just said in a radio interview on… ,
    being imprisoned in the USA since more than 11 years for having tried to protect Cuba from terrorist acts carried out by exile groups in Southern Florida, see at .
    If Obama did want to put his words into action he would have released them already.
    Thank you very much Sophia Weeks and the other authors for this brilliant article.
    Apart from that, my impression is, we all are governed by mafia principles.

  • September 28, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    And what have the Cuban dictators done to promote goodwill with the US? Oh, now I remember. They have "permitted" their citizens to have cell phones. Simon Bolivar would be rejoicing in heaven, except that Casto's police are so closely monitoring all the phone lines that everyone has been afraid to call and tell him. Perhaps Obama is finally acknowledging the reality that any economic benefits resulting from suspended sanctions will simply wind up in the pockets of the dictators. Or perhaps deep down Obama is offended by all the prison systems in Cuba, including the one that Castro calls his government.

    • September 29, 2009 at 6:53 pm

      Hello Henry,
      Makes me sad that you chose to believe all the propaganda against Cuba, from what I read, without first hand knowledge. It is easily identifiable when somebody is nothing but a victim of misinformation but all of the sudden, becomes a tool of it, by repeating the old embeded mantras. Am I wrong and it's the other way round ?
      Kind regards-Jorge (Cuban)

  • September 29, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Two corrections:

    The UN vote on the embargo won't happen until the end of October at the earliest.

    This is half wrong: "It is disappointing that while Obama has the discretionary right to allow anyone to travel to Cuba, he has chosen not to utilize it." The President can only allow non-tourist travel (educational, cultural, religious, humanitarian, Cuban American, etc.). Congress must change the law for normal tourism to take place. However, it is very disappointing that he has not yet exercised the authority he does have.

    Tell the White House to take action on non-tourist travel at

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • September 29, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Many people have become victims of the misinformation spread about Cuba due to the "public diplomacy" of persons as Otto Reich and John Negroponte etc.
    In reality Cuba is an example for grass route democracy, but U.S. citizens are not allowed to realize.
    People in Cuba are suffering from the embargo, and after the collaps of the Soviet Union they hadn't even enough for eating, so there were at first other things much more urgently needed than cell phones.
    However, everybody can find the truth, even if not allowed to travel to Cuba and see by himself, thanks to Internet and respective literature, for instance: Arnold August, "Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections, ISBN0-9685084-0-5.
    Therefore, Fidel Castro was democratically elected, and so was his brother Raúl in 2008 by the majority of the people.
    Meanwhile, the successive U.S. governments supported or initiated coups d'Etat in other Latin American countries and they supported cruel regimes torturing their opponents etc. Please, read about the operations CONDOR and CORU, for instance: John Dinges, "The Condor Years – How Pinochet and his Allies brought Terrorist to three countries".
    Furthermore, compare to the reports of the UNESCO describing Cuban achievement, despite of the "embargo", which they correctly call "blockeo".
    Within the article above the damage that it caused is expressed in U.S. $.

    • September 29, 2009 at 7:01 pm

      Dear Michel,
      Thanks for showing knowledge and interest with regards to the cause of my country ! My elderly mother ( was 87 a few days ago ) lives in Havana and doesn't blame " The Castros " or a "dictatorrship". She, as the huge mayority of Cubans, only recognises one source of problems, the American Blockade. She was hoping that Obama would have what it takes to chgange a bankrupt policy. What a fiasco !

      • September 30, 2009 at 11:13 pm

        Jorge, I appreciate your kind note. I have never been to Cuba. However, I have lived in Mexico for 19 years and therefor not the typical gringo, and I have experienced the former PRI dictatorship in Mexico. I have a home in Miami and valued Cuban friends. Many of them in my age group are my heros. They have incredible experiences of risking their lives to escape Castro to build new, productive lives in the United States for their children. I am sad to hear about your mother and "the huge majority of Cubans". I hope they some day get to live in a free society. Only then will they know the difference.

    • September 30, 2009 at 2:35 am

      Mr/Ms Michel-Bruning: with all respect, if you actually believe Cuba is a grassroots democracy, then you must have also observed that Castro has spent fifty years systematically stomping all over any new shoots that managed to break the soil. It is surprising that you have not noticed that a real democracy usually allows more than one candidate to run for office; it does not censure free speech or free press; it does not put peaceful government critics in prison; it does not prevent its citizens from leaving the country or imprison them if they are caught trying; it does not prohibit self-employment and self-advancement; it does not restrict news and information emanating from outside the government; and most of all it does not permit an egotistical tyrant to rule for fifty years over a perpetually failed economy that has impoverished the entire nation and created the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (just ahead of the great democracy of Haiti). You blame the USA for Cuba's poverty? Can you think of even one dictator, from Stalin to Mao to Franco to Castro to Amin to Mugabe to Hussein to Kim Jong-il to Chavez, who led their nation to prosperity? Please just name one!

    • September 30, 2009 at 2:43 am

      To continue….blaming Cuba's problems on the US embargo, and not on Castro, means you have not read your history book. From the day he descended the Sierra Maestra and began seizing homes, businesses and possessions, Castro deliberately made the USA his enemy. After all, villainizing the USA is Chapter One of the Banana Republic Dictator Handbook. Do you recall that Castro deliberately allied his country with another dictator Nikita Khruschev? (And how did that decision work for you, Fidel?) Cuba has always been free to trade with the rest of the world. The trouble is that under Castro, Cuba produces nothing that the remaining 75% of the world economy finds valuable – except a few cigars and access to one of the top three destinations on the world sex vacation circuit. Have you ever stopped to observe how, throughout history and around the world, the two consistent consequences of dictatorial rule have been poverty and expoitation of women? You can be certain that if Castro were to disband his Gestapo, institute free speech, and allow political plurality, Americans would immediately embrace Cuba and its people.


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