Three months into President Barack Obama's new administration, the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April 2009 will offer him the perfect forum to present his plan for a "new partnership" in the Americas. Although Cuba will not be at the top of that agenda, there are good reasons for him to take the initiative quickly with a new Cuba policy.
From the time Fidel Castro seized power nearly three generations ago, Cuba has served as an important symbol to Latin America. Washington's unwavering hostility, which has spanned ten presidents from both political parties, is an anachronistic remnant of the Cold War--a reminder of an era when the United States too often imposed its will on Latin America in the name of its own national security. Nothing would more clearly signal the visionary intent of a young and forward-looking global leader to open a new chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations than a change in Cuba policy. It would be welcomed across the hemisphere, and enable us to work together with our friends on a strategy to create a positive climate for change in Cuba.
Internally, Cuba is already in the midst of change, evolving from a centrally planned economy controlled by a single Leninist party to a mixed, market-oriented economy and an increasingly plural civil society. After Fidel Castro fell ill in August 2006 and his brother, Raul, replaced him as president, the younger Castro opened a candid dialogue with Cubans about the problems they face. In a series of speeches, he acknowledged the inadequacy of state-sector incomes, the inability of state farms to raise agricultural production, the existence of serious corruption and cronyism, and the inequality produced by a dual currency system where people who have access to U.S. dollars and Euros through employment in the tourist sector or from relatives abroad live far better than ordinary Cubans. Raul has promised action on all these fronts, and has already adopted measures to make daily life easier--such as replacing Havana's antiquated Soviet buses with a fleet of new Chinese imports. Raul's frank discussion of the regime's short-comings and declarations of the need for change have raised popular expectations enormously. From the Cuban leadership to the man and woman in the street, Cubans agree that the old system needs a drastic overhaul.
The pace and extent of change are uncertain, especially on the political front, but they will depend in part on the external environment--the mix of incentives and disincentives for change that other countries offer. During the presidential campaign, Senator Obama argued that Washington's policy of hostility, isolation, and economic denial had not achieved the desired result. "We've been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years," he declared at a campaign rally in Miami. "And we need to change it." If the United States hopes to exert a positive influence on the changes underway in Cuba, it must reestablish some measure of engagement.
More immediately, Cuba and its people are facing an acute crisis that the United States can and should help alleviate, on both humanitarian grounds and out of self-interest. Hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and Paloma inflicted terrible damage to the Cuban economy, destroying many food crops and stored food supplies. The government itself has warned of food shortages. Over the next year, falling consumption will increase pressures for migration, just as economic privation in 1994, led to the balsero (rafters) migration crisis. President Bill Clinton thought he could put Cuba policy on the backburner after the 1992 election, a shortsighted approach that left his administration unprepared for the migration crisis that followed. President Obama should not repeat that mistake. Acting quickly and decisively now can reduce the likelihood of another crisis next summer, but the cooperation of the Cuban government is essential to complement even the best of American intentions.
Engaging People and Government
During the presidential campaign, Senator Obama offered two elements of a new Cuba policy--lifting government restrictions on Cuban-American family visits and remittances, and opening a diplomatic dialogue with the Cuban government. These two elements comprise the core of a strategic shift in U.S. policy from one of isolation and deprivation to one of engagement with both the Cuban people and the Cuban government.
We can engage the Cuban people by encouraging interaction between U.S. and Cuban societies at all levels--via Cuban-American family linkages, cultural and educational exchanges, scientific cooperation, and non-governmental humanitarian assistance. President Clinton expanded these people-to-people contacts to good effect. President George W. Bush, however, curtailed almost all interaction with Cuba by U.S. civil society. He ended most categories of travel for cultural and educational purposes. He restricted religious, scientific, and Cuban-American travel. He virtually banned travel to the United States by Cuban scholars, artists, and scientists. During the Bush years, authentic civil society contact between the United States and Cuba was replaced by narrowly targeted U.S. government material support for selected Cuban dissidents. Washington publicly proclaimed that this support was intended to subvert the government, leading Cuban authorities to do everything possible to make America's efforts ineffective, including the imprisonment of many aid recipients.
Engaging the Cuban government diplomatically will reduce bilateral tensions, help avoid future crises, and advance U.S. interests on a variety of issues. Every American president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton held negotiations with Cuba, and Ronald Reagan signed more agreements with Havana than any other president. Only George W. Bush refused to see the utility of skillful diplomacy. Just as he cut off people-to-people exchanges, he cut off virtually all diplomatic contact between the United States and Cuba, using the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana as a depot for aiding Cuban dissidents while publicly excoriating the Cuban government.
President Obama has declared that the goal of U.S. policy should be to seek democracy in Cuba, but diplomacy offers only an indirect path to a democratic opening. Cuban leaders will not negotiate their domestic political arrangements with a foreign country, any more than we would. When Raul Castro offered in 2006 to negotiate with the United States on a basis of equality and mutual respect for sovereignty, he was signaling his rejection of U.S. demands that Cuba change its political regime. That has been Cuba's unwavering position since 1959, and if we insist on explicitly adding democracy to the agenda, negotiations will go nowhere. Our allies in Latin America and the European Union who have been pursuing strategies of engagement with Cuba for many years can attest that this is the one issue that is always off the table. Nevertheless, through engagement they have been able to reach bilateral agreements with Cuba on issues of mutual interest and, in some cases, win freedom for some political prisoners. A strategy of engagement should be designed to create an international environment that makes it beneficial for Cuban leaders to allow greater political and economic liberty on the island, while at the same time creating a more vibrant civil society that will, in time, press Cuba's leaders from below to allow a political opening. This indirect approach will not work quickly and it offers no guarantees, although similar strategies proved successful in promoting democratic transitions in Spain and Greece in the 1970s, in Chile, Brazil, and Mexico during their transition from authoritarian rule, and in Eastern Europe at the end of the communist era.
Because the payoff for a strategy of engagement will be neither quick nor directly attributable to U.S. policy, engagement will be open to political criticism as soft and ineffectual. When such criticism arrives, as it inevitably will, from the Republican right and its hard-line allies in the anti-Castro exile community in Miami, the president must keep in mind that their strategy for bringing about change in Cuba--collapsing the regime by economic...