YES. Should some elements of U.S. policy still be changed irrespective of what the Cuban government does in the short term?
After 50 years, the all-or-nothing approach of U.S. policy toward Cuba has undoubtedly yielded nothing. Defenders of maintaining this status quo have suggested that any changes in U.S. policy would represent “concessions” to the communist regime. They have argued that the U.S. should continue to demand that Cuba be a modern-day, western-style democracy before the U.S. consider any changes to its own policy. In doing so, defenders of this failed policy have contributed to Cuba’s isolation, helped delay processes of change on the island and effectively placed control of U.S policy toward Cuba in the hands of Cuban leaders.
Supporters of the status quo who dismiss recent positive developments inside Cuba as “insignificant” shows that these individuals don’t understand the nature of transitions or the plight of the Cuban people. History has proven that transitions are micro-processes that, far from occurring overnight, take place as a series of incremental steps toward democratic reform. The goal of U.S. policy should be to encourage each of those steps.
By responding positively and immediately to positive steps in Cuba, the U.S. can help embolden reformers within the Cuban government, making change on the island easier and more likely. The critics of positive developments inside Cuba fail to recognize that what may appear to be small reforms when viewed from Washington or Miami may represent important changes for Cubans on the island. Evidence of this is how cell phone liberalization has helped empower Cuba’s blogger community and civil society.
It is time that policymakers place U.S. national interests and those of the Cuban people ahead of political considerations and the obsession for some of focusing solely on hurting the Cuban regime. A more effective U.S. policy toward Cuba would prioritize interests, focus on helping the Cuban people and actively work to encourage reformers within the regime.
In an effort to intimidate policymakers and brand proponents of a more effective policy, the defenders of the status quo have equated any changes in U.S. policy to an essential lifting of the embargo and labeled such moves as “naïve” or even as “lobbying for the Cuban regime.” Even though countless polls of Cuban-Americans suggest that an overwhelming majority consider the U.S. embargo on Cuba a miserable failure, the policy changes that are currently being debated would in no way result in the unilateral lifting of the embargo. In fact, almost all changes being proposed fall within the President’s executive authority, with the sole exception being a bill in Congress that would restore the right of American citizens to travel to Cuba.
The proposed changes include:
Expanding People-to-People Exchanges: The President can, under Executive Authority, issue general licenses for travel to Cuba for academic, cultural, athletic, and other purposes not related to tourism. Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush (during the first two years of his Administration) allowed expanded people-to-people exchanges.
Clarifying and Expanding U.S. Telecommunication Regulations: In April of last year President Barack Obama used existing Executive Authority to announce changes to U.S. telecom regulations in an effort to “increase the means through which Cubans on the island can communicate with each other and with persons outside of Cuba.” Unfortunately, the new regulations were narrow and not clear and thus have resulted in not a single agreement or investment by a U.S. telecom company in Cuba. Recently, Nokia, Verizon and AT&T called on the Administration to clarify and expand telecom regulations.
Increasing the Effectiveness of U.S. Cuba Democracy Programs: Reports by the government’s General Accountability Office and statements by dissidents in Cuba have revealed an urgent need to reform programs financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. State Department in order to advance democracy in Cuba. All programs are under the control of the Executive and, while Congress determines the level of funding, it is the job of the Administration to manage and oversee these programs.
What all these proposed changes have in common, in addition to the fact that they can all be done within existing executive authority, is that they are in the national interest of the U.S. and in the best interest of the Cuban people. That is why Cuba’s leading democracy advocates have called on the U.S. government to take these steps and to lift the ban on travel for all Americans.
Countless polls over the last few years point to the same results: Cuban-Americans overwhelming support the U.S. enacting these reforms unilaterally. Leading U.S. human rights, democracy and trade organizations have urged policymakers to pass these reforms, arguing that they would help the fight for human rights in Cuba, strengthen Cuba’s civil society, facilitate changes toward democracy, and benefit U.S. foreign policy, national security and business interests.
The Obama Administration should enact these changes as soon as possible regardless of what Cuban leaders do or fail to do. To continue to give Cuba’s communist leaders control over U.S. foreign policy not only undermines our own national interests, but also betrays the Cuban people who our policy is supposedly designed to help.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.