The Time for Change In Cuban Policy is Now

The Time for Change In Cuban Policy is Now


My name is Bradley A. Porter, one of the founders of The Crossed Pond. Many thanks to Justin for inviting me to blog here.

I’ve done a little bit of everything and lived a little bit of everywhere. I’ve been a monk, a rancher, a perpetual student, a political organizer, a preschool teacher, and everything in between. I currently make my living as a freelance writer. I grew up in North Carolina, Kansas, and New York, and have recently lived (most significantly) in Maine, Virginia, Pittsburgh, and now Chicago.

I have been a registered Republican since the day I turned 18, but find myself one a vehement critic of the Republicanism of the last decade. I consider myself socially liberal, a civil libertarian first and foremost, and a non-interventionist abroad. I supported Ron Paul and endorsed Obama in 2008, Kerry in 2004, and first McCain then Harry Browne (LP ) in 2000.

My claim to fame is, in June, I endorsed and predicated both Sarah Palin and Joe Biden as the odds-on best political choices for VP (admittedly, have since found myself eating it on the former), predicted the presidential race outcome and the Senate outcome shy of one state (Missouri and, if things don’t go Franken’s way, Minnesota), and one month before the Iowa caucuses began, correctly predicted both the results and the finishing order of both party’s primary contests, before any ballots had been cast.

Hey, if I don’t toot my own horn, who will?

Shameless self-promotion aside, enough about me…

While change comes to Washington, and pressing, almost intractable crises seem to be popping up like a bad game of Whack-a-Mole, it’s easy to overlook American policy towards Cuba as an area demanding of attention. Indeed, it’s precisely because our present policy is so outrageously dumb and ineffective that makes the Cuban situation easy to ignore–nothing ever changes. But under the veneer of the half-a-century old stalemate, conditions are bubbling that seem to indicate that now might be the best time in modern American history to enact a total reversal of one of the most emblematically stupid American policies of the 20th century.

The obvious: Fidel Castro is either dying or dead. His brother Raul began officially ruling the country in February, and while it’s clear Raul would like to as continue as his brother as seamlessly as possible, it remains unclear what his legacy or public standing will be. Barack Obama, who has precisely no inherent impetus to keep the embargo, has been elected president. Obama himself has shown an eyebrow-raising amount of flexibility towards revising our policy towards Cuba. He has called for an end to travel restrictions for Cuban exiles, an end to caps on remittances (family sending money back), noted he would be willing to personally sit down with Fidel Castro (though it was the inclusion of Ahmadinejad in that statement that got all the attention), and and has explicitly expressed a willingness to liberalize our Cuba policy.

And now, a critical third piece: Cuban Americans, for the first time ever, are in favor of lifting the embargo.

New polling in Florida shows that for the first time a majority of Cuban-Americans favor lifting the trade embargo against Cuba that the United States has had in place since 1962. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed favored discontinuing the embargo, and 65% said they were in favor of reestablishing diplomatic relations with the neighboring Communist regime.

It also goes without saying that the contrast is generational, with the younger demographics being significantly more liberal than their older counterparts. It is, however, significant that, for the first time, the majority of even Floridian Cuban-Americans support lifting the embargo.

In making that switch, Cuban Americans join the rest of the free world in their assessment. Already, 68% of Americans favor lifting travel restrictions, 62% favor allowing trade, and 60% favor an outright reversal of the “Trading with the Enemy Act” and subsequent diplomatic freezes.

Opinion is even more lopsided when you go outside the borders of the United States.

If votes in the United Nations serve as a gauge of global opinion, 98.9 percent of the world opposes the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, a measure imposed 46 years ago to isolate the communist-ruled island and bring down its leaders.

It failed on both counts. As far as international opinion is concerned, the country that is isolated is the United States, not Cuba. In the latest of 17 successive U.N. General Assembly resolutions on lifting the embargo, Washington mustered only two allies — Israel and Palau, a Pacific island nation difficult to find on a map. It has a population of 21,000.cubans

The Marshall Islands (pop. 63,000), which had voted with the United States from 2000 to 2007, unexpectedly and without public explanation broke ranks this year and abstained in the vote, a non-binding resolution taken a week before the U.S. presidential election.

The count — 185 countries in favor of lifting the embargo, three against — speaks volumes about a bankrupt policy stuck in the Cold War era.

Yes, you read that right. The United States of America couldn’t keep The Marshall Islands in its coalition. Who are we isolating again?

American businesses, sensing the opportunity, are piling on

President-elect Barack Obama should start soon to loosen five decades of trade curbs on Cuba and begin a comprehensive review of policy toward the communist-run island, business groups said on Thursday.

“We support the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba. We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon,” the groups said in a letter to Obama.

They recommended the United States start by holding talks with Cuba to discuss how to repair nearly 50 years of distrust and by allowing Americans to visit the island.

The groups included American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation and Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose collective membership comprises a broad cross-section of American industry and agriculture.

And finally, an oft-overlooked component. Much was said by Obama supporters about the potential soft-power advantages that might be gained by having a commander-in-chief who looks more like the world than Texas. That has very specific implications in Cuba, which has become a majority black country, and where racial tensions between that de facto majority and the Revolutionary government has always been bubbling just under the surface. It’s easy for Castro to demonize guys like George W. Bush. But even Castro senses that with President Barack Obama, he faces something of a PR nightmare. Read that whole article for an awful lot of insight about how the mere fact of a President Obama problematizes the domestic messaging of the Cuban government in a big, and potentially powerful, way.

So, with all that in favor of reversing America’s policy towards Cuba, it should be a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast.

While Obama has shown a huge degree of openness towards liberalizing our Cuban policy, it’s easy to overstate the case and paint the situation as America opening up Cuba being a done deal. But as is true of a lot of things, while both his critics and supporters read idealism and boldness into Obama’s position, the truth of it is that he maintains a cautious “flexibility” that could go either way.

For one, just as Obama has no real political reason not to normalize, he also has no real political reason to normalize (save that it’s unquestioningly the right thing to do). His purported disproportionate problems with the Hispanic vote (even in Florida) never materialized (in fact, he ran much stronger among them, against an immigration reform crusader and generally favorably-viewed figure among the Hispanic community in McCain, than Kerry did against Bush), but at the same time he probably wants badly to hang on to Florida for 2012 and courting controversy on this, particularly as it’s unclear what demographic would be won over the gesture, might give him pause. The problem with Cuban policy is that while most everyone broadly thinks reversal is a good idea, there’s nobody for whom this is a make-or-break issue except the pro-embargo Cuban community mostly centered in Florida. In other words Obama can lift the embargo, or do nothing at all, and still count on the majority of Hispanics to support him—and being the Democrat, it doesn’t seem very likely his future opponent for reelection is going to flank him on the left with this one. All Obama has to do to gain maximum political advantage here is take the Price is Right Strategy. If your opponent buzzes in with $1000, go with $999. With nobody but the critics tying their votes to Obama’s policy, why court controversy? Never underestimate the draw of the path of least resistance for any politician, even one with Obama’s Changiness.

Secondly, while Obama has indeed made a lot of remarks indicating he was open to the possibility of reforming our Cuban policy, he’s consistently couched that in language that could just as easily be used to support a status quo position. Michael C. Moynihan at Reason does the best job I’ve seen of deconstructing Obama’s Cuban stance (or non-stance, as it were). The gist is that while Obama has indeed made specific promises that amount to rolling back some Bushian restrictions with the stroke of a pen, he has very conspicuously fallen short of going farther. When asked directly on more major changes to Cuban policy—or when making policy speeches to Cuban audiences—Obama, like every major Presidential candidate since 1962, has made sure to conditionalize everything on Cuba democratizing. What exactly they would need to do to merit a reversal of course remains ambiguous, as it always has, but the crux is that Obama’s stated positions on Cuban policy are no different than any other President. He is willing to lift the embargo provided Cuba “opens itself up to democratization”, a policy which, at least in letter, is identical to even the most fervent hardliner’s stance.

And finally, while Obama can make good on his Cuban campaign promises relatively easily (by reversing the present administration’s in-practice additions to our law), to make any kind of significant revisions would require Congressional approval, which is to say, a bill would have to reach his desk for him to sign. There is little reason to believe that Obama himself will ask for one, and while most people are confident that Obama would sign one if given the opportunity, whether or not he’ll be given that opportunity remains the same open question we’ve had for years. There is some reason for optimism here, of course. With major Democratic majorities, of course, chances are more likely, and also with Dodd taking on increasing leadership and visibility in the majority caucus, and with Richardson at Commerce, it seems very likely that the issue will at least reach Obama’s ear. However, again, whether this becomes a centerpiece agenda item for anybody remains unclear.

And that last point is the stickler. Obama will, I would guess, make some revisions to American Cuban policy. And I am also a believer that eventually we will normalize with Cuban, and that our Cold War policy will suffer a death of a thousand cuts. But the very nature of lifting the embargo on Cuban means that, for us to gain leverage with it, we would have to do so in a dramatic, very public way. Merely letting it atrophy won’t cut it, in other words: it needs to be part of a gesture to provide a PR hit to the island for us to gain good advantage from it. There is a way to have the embargo aid in efforts to democratize Cuba: by lifting it, publicly and loudly. It would be better to have a slow death of the embargo than no death at all, but letting it phase out quietly robs us of our biggest potential soft power weapon.

Right now, at this point in history, we have the best chance we’ve ever had towards making a real change in regards to Cuba. The stars, as it were, are well aligned. But those assuming this is going to get done ought to be prepared for a fight. If it’s ever to be done, now is the right time to do it. My point is not to knock Obama his pragmatic flexibility, but rather to say that like anything in inertia-based Washington, change may come, but it’s not going to spontaneously generate itself. It has to come because we demand it, not because we expect it.

Cross-posted at The Crossed Pond.

The Crossed Pond is a site devoted to crossing boundaries, ideological and geographic. Our founders include an English physicist, a debate coach in Kansas, and a freelance writer in Chicago (me)–a Tory, a Libertarian, and a Republican, respectively. All of us consider ourselves centrist, libertarian-leaning conservatives of one sort or another, though like Donklephant are pointedly non-partisan. We have since expanded our roster to include a few more Englishmen, an American expat in Japan, a 20-year veteran (and now critic) of the military’s counter-narcotics efforts in South and Central America, a student in California, a (also ex-military) civil servant in D.C., and a few others. In 2007 we were named as a finalist for Best Political Coverage at the Weblog Awards (and promptly got stomped by RealClearPolitics), and made Iain Dale’s list of Top Right-of-Centre Blogs in the “Guide to Political Blogging in the UK”. We pride ourselves on being “the best blog you’ve never heard of”.

  • SteveIL

    “Right now, at this point in history, we have the best chance we’ve ever had towards making a real change in regards to Cuba.”

    It may be the we’ve ever had, but it isn’t the best chance we may yet see. The Communists are still in power, running the country in exactly the same way as when Fidel Castro took power (at least the Communists in China aren’t running that country as if Mao were still around).

    The U.S. is already the biggest supplier of Cuba’s imported foodstuffs (bigger than every nation that has normal relations with Cuba), and all without having to remove the trade embargo. So forget it; leave Cuba where it is until the Communists go away or actually reform.