Obama Suggests Cuba Policy Reform

Wednesday, December 31, 2008 at 9:25 am

As the world ushers in the new year, Cuba will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and sparked an intense political conflict with the United States that has far outlived the Cold War.

President-elect Barack Obama had not yet been born when Castro drove the military dictator Gen. Fulgencio Batista from the island on January 1, 1959. Now, half a century and ten U.S. presidents later, Obama appears likely to lead the first major liberalization of America’s draconian Cuba policy in decades.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In his U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns, Obama pledged to reverse some of the harsh sanctions on Cuba, imposed over the past fifty years and intensified under President Bush, that have cut off nearly all interaction between the two countries. But while he is likely to open the channels of communication and travel, particularly for Cuban-Americans, it is doubtful that he will make significant reforms to the trade restrictions under the longstanding embargo.

A number of factors free Obama’s hand to make the sorts of changes that have eluded his predecessors. The end of the 49-year reign of Fidel Castro, who in February officially ceded power to his brother Raúl, inspired hope that Cuba would begin to democratize, and very modest reforms have indeed been initiated. But the most significant precondition for improved U.S.-Cuban relations, Latin American policy experts say, has taken place not in Cuba, but here in the United States, with the November presidential election. Where past presidents have been beholden to Cuban-American voters in Florida, Obama proved he could win an election without the previously critical voting bloc.

“U.S. Cuba policy has not been a foreign policy,” explained Shannon O’Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s been a domestic policy, based on the Cuban vote in Florida.” In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush relied on the Cuban vote to carry Florida by narrow margins. Without the Sunshine State, he would not have won either election.

In 2008, however, the equation changed, as Obama won while carrying just 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. “The Cubans voted overwhelmingly against Obama,” said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue and author of The Cuba Wars. “So what the November election shows is that he did not need the Cuban vote to win Florida, and he did not need the Florida vote to win the presidential election.”

Released from the pressures of the Cuban-American constituency, which has generally taken a hard line against Castro’s Cuba and opposed efforts to ease sanctions on the island nation, Obama has some latitude to pursue reform of the country’s Cuba policy. However, it is unclear how this opportunity will translate into reform.

Campaigning in Illinois for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama said in a speech that he wanted “to end the embargo with Cuba” that had “utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro.” In the same campaign, he pushed for the “normalization of relations with Cuba” to “help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene.” (Instead of an embassy that would allow for full diplomacy, each of the two countries has an “interests section” in the other’s capital with little more than nominal authority.)

But his message during his presidential campaign was substantially different. In August 2007, he told a Miami audience that he would not “take off the embargo,” but would preserve it as “an important inducement for change.” However, he did promise to “grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.”

Currently, under the stringent limits imposed by President Bush in 2004, Cuban-Americans can visit Cuba just once every three years, and they are limited to sending no more than $300 annually to their families there.

Obama’s apparent plan to lift these restrictions would have broad support. According to a poll released on Dec. 3 by Florida International University, 66 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County — usually among the most vocal opponents of reduced sanctions — want to end the travel limits, and 65 percent hope to see the restriction on remittances lifted.

Still, there will be some resistance if Obama eases the limits on travel and remittances. “There’s a small but influential group of anti-Castro hard-liners in both Cuba and Miami who will fight tooth and nail to prevent these kinds of changes,” said Erikson.

Ray Walser, the Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America at the conservative Heritage Foundation, expressed concern over Obama’s plans. “You’re giving something away to a totalitarian regime without asking for anything in return,” he said. However, he acknowledged that he was probably on the losing end of this battle. “The likelihood is that there will be unilateral concessions from the Obama administration.”

In fact, the changes to the travel restrictions could extend beyond Cuban-Americans. “There is pretty broad support for lifting the travel ban for all Americans,” said Erikson. O’Neil agreed that we might “see the travel restrictions eased, if not lifted, for non-Cubans.”

What is unlikely to change in the near future is the embargo. Instituted by President Kennedy as a security measure — but not before he had an aide buy him 1,200 of his favorite Cuban cigars — the embargo was codified and expanded by the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. These laws prevent the president from lifting the embargo without congressional approval or from normalizing relations with Cuba while a Castro is still in power.

“Before the passage of Helms-Burton, it was largely a question of presidential discretion,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think tank. “But Clinton made that concession to the Cuban hardliners.”

Every major presidential candidate since 1992 has supported the trade sanctions against Cuba, according to Erikson. And Obama is no exception. Like other leading politicians, he has described the embargo in terms of leverage, arguing that it should not be lifted until Cuba makes significant democratic reforms.

Walser endorses this notion of reciprocity. “The essence is some willingness on the part of the Cuban regime to change some of its fundamentals,” he said. But because the chances for change are remote, he said that lifting the embargo while Raúl Castro is still in power is going to be difficult.

The idea that the embargo creates leverage has drawn criticism from a number of camps, encompassing both liberals and free trade advocates. “Many people, including Obama, have described the embargo as leverage, but I think that’s a conceptually confused notion,” said Erikson. “What the embargo represents is an absence of leverage.” A free exchange of goods and ideas, embargo critics argue, would much more effectively enable compromise and reform.

While the embargo’s repeal does not appear imminent, O’Neil says it could receive a boost from the agricultural lobby. Farmers would like to gain a new market in Cuba, where they could sell their produce more widely if sanctions were removed.

“Obama doesn’t owe anything to Cuban-Americans,” she said, since they did not contribute to his electoral victory. “On the other hand, Obama does owe quite a lot to the folks in Iowa for his win.” Obama’s upset victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus proved that he could win in rural, majority-white areas and laid the foundation for his eventual nomination.

Kal Wagenheim, editor and publisher of the business website Caribbean Update, agrees that the prospect of new buyers in Cuba is enticing to American growers and manufacturers. “The American business community is dying to get in there,” he said. “There is a strong consensus in the business community — and they’re certainly not communist — to normalize relations with Cuba.”

The embargo has also lost considerable support among the general populace, particularly Cuban-Americans. This year, for the first time, a majority (55 percent) of Miami-Dade Cuban-Americans favor lifting the embargo, according to the Florida International University poll. Just a year ago, that number was 42 percent.

The power to make that change, however, lies with Congress, and a strong and growing contingent of Cuban-American senators and House members continues to oppose any easing of sanctions. Cuban-American lobbying groups in Miami such as the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC have raised substantial funds for candidates who share their hard line on Cuba. The result is a Democratic Party that remains split on Cuba, even as a small number of Republicans, including Obama’s new transportation secretary Ray LaHood, have pushed for reform.

So how will the next 50 years of the United States’ relationship with its neighbor across the Florida Straits differ from the half century that is now drawing to a close? According to Erikson, it’s too early to tell.

“The last 50 years of U.S.-Cuban relations have not only been negative for the two countries, but they’ve almost been uniquely bad for bilateral relations between any two counties anywhere in the world,” he said. “So it seems like the future should be much better than the present. But if history has taught us anything about U.S.-Cuban relations, as much as people would like them to get better, they can always get worse.”

Between the economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cuba may not be Obama’s most pressing priority. But as the island crosses this historical milestone, he has an opportunity to apply his mantra of change to an area where it has long been lacking.

Follow Aaron Wiener on Twitter



Comment posted December 31, 2008 @ 8:44 am

Change will happen quicker in Cuba if the embargo is lifted that to continue to pursue the same policy that hasn't worked for 50 years.

Comment posted December 31, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

I have always believed that Cuba has made economic realtionships with countries around the world, including the United States. I do not believe that Fidel Castro is so lucky, to not have been assasinated, in fifty years, by his enemies or in reality, his associates.

American born, with Cuban parents, I have always heard the horror stories and disbelief, on how such a terror, can maintain and continue to live so long. And my answer has and will always be, ECONOMICS.

50 years, 90 miles | The GWIRE
Pingback posted December 31, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

[...] this bleak anniversary I’m heartened somewhat by the fact that Barack Obama is making at least some motions toward easing some of the more ridiculous restrictions.  I’m less than thrilled, to be sure, [...]

Comment posted January 2, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

I am not a Cuban nor an American, my dream howerver is to become an American. America is a land of opportunities, which preaches human rights, democracy and all the good things we can think of. Babyfathers are now changing to be Fathers to their kids, Mother are more loving than ever. My question is, how good is a parent when he/she can't take care of his/her children. The Cuban government does not suffer from the embargo but rather innocent people on the island. living condition and life itself is rather tough for the Cuban people.
Can you imagine not being able to send money or any gift to your own children in these holiday season, and how do you explain this to your three(3) year old daughter or your five(5) year old son.
There is no way to forgive yourself for not being there for your childrens birthday, graduation or a sport event. Any normal human being, or a caring father or moter know how it feels to be separated from your children. Why should innocent people pay the price for the “Castros”

United States & Cuba… We STILL Have An Embargo? « Random Smattering
Pingback posted January 5, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

[...] to Cuba. The cold war ended in 1991 but this remnant to it remains. Lately there has been some talk about Obama’s future policy towards Cuba and I might have a suggestion for the President [...]

Just Foreign Policy News » Blog Archive » Just Foreign Policy News, January 2, 2009
Pingback posted January 8, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

[...] 5) Obama Suggests Cuba Policy Reform Not Beholden to the Florida Vote, President-elect Has Room to Make Change Aaron Wiener, Washington Independent, 12/31/08 http://washingtonindependent.com/23303/will-obama-reform-americas-cuba-policy [...]

Pages tagged "cuba"
Pingback posted January 9, 2009 @ 7:07 am

[...] bookmarks tagged cuba The Washington Independent » Obama Suggests Cuba … saved by 3 others     VenetianPrincess bookmarked on 01/09/09 | [...]

Cuba Policy Positioned for Reform Under Obama | auctionender.com
Pingback posted January 15, 2009 @ 10:51 am

[...] Cuba Policy Positioned for Reform Under Obama [...]

Will Obama Reform America’s Cuba Policy? « Blogging for Blogging’s Sake
Pingback posted January 26, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

[...] printed in The Washington Independent on December 31, [...]

Recent Faves Tagged With "pressrelease" : MyNetFaves
Pingback posted February 5, 2009 @ 9:05 am

[...] COMMITTEE FOR ETHIOPIAN POLITICAL PRISONERS (Press … First saved by zereshka | 9 days ago Obama Suggests Cuba Policy Reform First saved by thiago701 | 12 days ago Telecomunication market news: The codec world widens – [...]

Comment posted April 11, 2009 @ 7:55 am

There was a College exchange program in the nineties that brought hundreds of students to the Island capital. The program allowed the interaction of American students with Cuban culture and teaching procedures. This exchange program was shut down by the Cuban authorities because it started to create discomfort between the Cuban students, in part and mostly, because of the harsh economic situation. The presence of this Americans with not such worries as food and clothing was bothering everyone, nice clothes, money in their pockets, the freedom to grab a cab or have a drink at a local bar. In other words, just lifting the travel restrictions for Americans I think would take care of the transition. The revolution in the 50s was supported by the whole country. I f the Cuban people wants change, they can make it happen, the just need a little motivation, and the long term lack of everything has worked their minds to the point of giving up fight in the majority, just a little kick is needed. The embargo only affects the Cuban people, not the Cuban rulers or regime, it proved the opposite. I wonder what excuse could the regime over there use f=if there was no embargo for the last 50 years for all the economical failures.

I've lived here for 4 years now. Born and raised in Havana, left Cuba in 2001. Help the Cuban people, lift the embargo. It will also help the economy here.

Comment posted May 22, 2009 @ 12:04 pm


Comment posted May 22, 2009 @ 12:05 pm


Comment posted November 5, 2010 @ 12:31 am

First off, the WHOLE COUNTRY did not support the Revolution in the 50's. My Dad LEFT CUBA, because he did not support the revolution. So did thousands of other Cubans who left the country. A ruthless dictatorship was taking over the country, and it was scary for many people who had worked hard for what they owned and the government was going to take it all away for themselves.

You can do business with the WHOLE WORLD, EXCEPT the United States and the whole country is dirt poor.

Are there tensions when Rich Canadians or Rich Europeans visit Cuba ?? They have money in their pockets too…

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.