The historic election of Barak Obama brought with it high expectations for a new direction in American foreign policy towards Cuba. Unfortunately, hope has turned into disappointment halfway through his first term: the President continues to miss opportunities to alter the dynamics of the consistently contentious US-Cuba relationship.
While the recent discharge of political prisoners and the announcement of major economic reforms in Cuba produced considerable international reaction, the events elicited no serious response from the White House. Obama’s only comment was brief, telling a group of Hispanic media that he would take a “wait and see” attitude.1 The possibility of moving towards an increased level of risk-free engagement with Cuba was lost, according to experts.2
The President’s lack of initiative is surprising considering his sparse yet revealing record on Cuba. During the Democratic candidates’ debate in February 2008, Obama was asked if he would meet with Raúl Castro. He answered, “We now have an opportunity to potentially change the relationship between the United States and Cuba after over half a century. I would meet without preconditions, although . . . there has to be preparation.”3 Back in 2003 Obama was unambiguous about US-Cuba relations: “I support the eventual normalization. And it’s absolutely true that I think our policy has been a failure.”4
Obama’s comments led many to believe there would be a fresh strategy from the new administration — where engagement might finally take precedence over confrontation. There was even an anticipation that Obama would be the one to finally end the policy objective relentlessly pursued by the previous ten presidents: that of changing Cuba’s socioeconomic system, through the use of political hostility, military aggression, state-sponsored terrorism, international isolation, and the imposition of a devastating economic siege.
Admittedly, there has been some adjustment to Cuban policy under President Obama. The most significant was to allow Cuban-Americans to travel to their former homeland without restrictions, a major tactical reversal from previous administrations.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Cuban-Americans could return once a year and the rules for sending remittances were fairly flexible. Bush Jr. tightened those regulations as a political favor to the hard-right elements in Miami — restricting visits to once every three years and imposing limitations on the amount of remittances they could send. Obama did away with all that, and now every month thousands arrive to the island, spend as much money as they want, and stay as long as they want.
Other positive signs that things were different under Obama came when US officials engaged Cuban authorities on bilateral matters such as migration and direct mail service. The President also indicated support for increased academic interactions, as well as making it easier for Cuban musicians and other artists to perform in the United States. Plans to further ease travel restrictions through increased people-to-people contacts are a continued consideration.
In the arena of direct diplomacy, the Obama administration has sought to end the conditions that limit American diplomats to Havana and their Cuban counterparts to the Washington, D.C. area. The politically provocative electronic signboard that the Bush Jr. administration had installed on the façade of the US Interests Section in Havana was turned off a year ago.
While these steps, taken together, are not unimportant, many complain that the basic attitude towards Cuba has not been altered.
Cuban expert Wayne Smith, a former head of the American Interests Section in Havana, commented: “We’d hoped for a new approach. We haven’t got it. Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances and has allowed a few more Cuban officials and cultural figures to come to the United States, but that is about it. The same attitudes that drove the Bush administration regarding Cuba seem to be present in Obama.”5
Smith’s displeasure stems from the realization that Obama’s fundamental position towards Cuba is the continuation of a strategy that has been in place for the past 50 years. While Obama acknowledges that it has been a failure, he has done little to adjust its basic structure.
In fact, Obama has on a number of occasions expressed support for that same failed policy — based on stipulating change in Cuba’s internal conditions before any easing of the embargo or hope for normalization. The US demands on Cuba are consistently framed by calls for improved human rights, a return to ‘democracy’ as defined by the United States, and increased individual freedoms. The same demands the past ten presidents have made, all to the same effect.
Cuba’s response towards Obama’s call for internal change is consistent: no country should dictate to another how to run things, and it is the American side that must take the first steps to alter the relationship. This was made clear on April 30, 2009 when Raúl Castro declared at the Non-Aligned Movement forum in Havana: “Cuba will not make ‘gestures’ to the United States, because Cuba is not the aggressor. It is not Cuba that has pursued the [irresponsible] financial transactions carried out by North American banks; it is not Cuba that has a military presence in the United States against the will of the citizens of the country . . . therefore, it is not Cuba that has to make goodwill gestures.”6
While the White House indicated no intention to modify the central tenets of Cuban policy, the previous few months saw an impetus for action from the halls of Congress.
Over the summer both the House and the Senate were moving legislation which would have ended travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans. Unfortunately, nothing came out of either chamber before the November mid-term elections, and with the Republicans taking control of the House in January, the likelihood for its passage has become much lower. Extreme pro-embargo proponent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will become head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Cuban-American Representative from Florida has made it clear she will continue to oppose any engagement.
Regardless of which party sits in the White House or controls Congress, a number of issues would have to be resolved prior to any progress towards normalization.
One of the most egregious for the Cubans is the listing of Cuba on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism since 1982. The listing is particularly galling to the Cuban government given a long history of terrorist acts that have been committed against its citizens, the majority of them originating from anti-revolutionary groups that continue to operate with impunity inside the United Sates. That history includes the destruction of the Cubana Airlines flight in 1976, killing 73 people. The two recognized masterminds of the bombing, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, continue to live unfettered in Miami.
Other acts of terrorism against Cuba include the murder of more than a dozen teachers during the Literacy Campaign in the early 1960s, attacks on defenseless villages, biological terrorism including the introduction of Dengue 2 that killed more than 100 children, the sabotage of munitions ship La Coubre, local fishermen captured, tortured, and killed, and a psychological war called Operation Peter Pan that led 14,000 Cuban parents to send their children out of country on their own. A 1997 bombing campaign against hotels and tourist facilities injured dozens and killed an Italian tourist.7
Connected to the terrorist issue is the matter of the Cuban Five, sent to infiltrate anti-revolutionary organizations in Florida in the 1990s, revealed and arrested by US authorities, and now serving long sentences in prison under the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage and being unregistered foreign agents. The Cuban government maintains the release of the Five as a high priority.
The US government, for its part, is also dealing with demands to free one of its citizens, Alan P. Gross, a veteran development consultant connected with USAID, detained by Cuban authorities since December 2009. Gross stands accused of conducting an espionage operation based on the illegal distribution of high-tech satellite phones.
President Obama has much on his plate these days, and his workload will increase once the new Congress is sworn in. Cuba is not high on his radar and would afford him little, if any, short-term political gain if he wanted to change tack. While he won his presidency without the need to take Florida or the Cuban-American vote, there is another presidential race in two years, and the swing state remains vital for both parties.
Obama is simply the latest politician to succumb to the schizophrenic polemics over revolutionary Cuba. While outside the White House, the issue was framed through the lens of foreign policy; once inside, the overriding consideration has turned to national politics.
Which leaves the prospect for change as elusive as ever, all the more disappointing as many had hoped the new President would make good on his pledge for a “new beginning,”8 to finally bring a measure of rationality between the island of 11 million and its powerful neighbor to the north.
1 “Obama Awaits ‘Full Results’ of Cuba’s Vow for Change,” AFP, October 19, 2010.
3 Katya Rodriguez, “Cuba-U.S. Rhetoric Timeline: Hope for a Basic Shift in Policy Disintegrates in Continued Polarization,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, March 17, 2010.
6 Rodriguez, op. cit.
7 Posada Carriles admitted in a New York Times article of his involvement in the bombing campaign. Ann Louise Bardach and Larry Rohter, “Key Cuba Foe Claims Exile’s Backing,” New York Times, July 12, 1998, p. 10. He later recanted his admission.
8 Jeff Franks, “No Bloom Yet in U.S.-Cuba Ties after April Overtures,” Reuters, May 17, 2009.
Keith Bolender is author of Voices from the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism against Cuba (Pluto Press, London 2010), distributed in the United States by Palgrave/Macmillan.