OPINION & ANALYSIS
Flexibility, responsiveness should guide U.S. policy
Special to the Sentinel
April 1, 2007
U.S. policy toward Cuba in the post-Cold War era has always had little to do with Cuba and much to do with domestic politics.
Democracy or nothing.
This is, in essence, the current U.S. foreign-policy approach toward Cuba, first laid out in the early post-Cold War years when containment of communism was no longer an issue, and more recently stated by several high-level U.S. officials in the Bush administration.
Washington would be willing to lift the embargo and pursue re-engagement with Havana only if the latter were prepared to hold free and fair elections, respect human rights, release political prisoners, permit the creation of independent organizations, and embrace a market-oriented economic system. In other words, all Cuba has to change is everything it is today.
What are the chances that such a dramatic transformation will happen anytime soon?
But Cuba has not remained exactly the same over the past decade and a half. The Castro regime promoted some significant liberalizing economic reforms around the mid-1990s, and its attitude toward internal dissent has alternated between periods of harsh crackdowns to others of greater tolerance. And since Raul Castro became acting president last July, a debate has been taking place at different levels of Havana's government over potential economic changes to the island's socialist system. Last December, Raul even went so far as to propose negotiations with Washington for a normalization of relations.
Not surprisingly, the United States rejected the offer by reiterating that it will consider negotiations only when the Cuban regime opens democratically. Yet, for a country that has severed almost all ties with Cuba and has practically no leverage over developments on the island, putting forward the same rigid conditions for rapprochement that could never be met in the past is not a very effective approach.
Furthermore, U.S. policy toward Cuba in the post-Cold War era has always had little to do with Cuba and much to do with domestic politics. All major U.S. moves to intensify or relax economic sanctions against Havana have occurred in presidential election years, when partisan bidding for Cuban-American votes in Florida takes center stage.
Despite their initial opposition, George Bush and Bill Clinton strengthened the embargo by signing, respectively, the Cuban Democracy Act (or CDA) in October 1992 and the Helms-Burton law in March 1996. Bush changed his mind after Democratic opponent Clinton traveled to Miami in April 1992 and announced his endorsement of the CDA. Clinton had a similar volte-face four years later following the shooting down by Cuban forces of two Cuban exile planes over the Straits of Florida in February 1996.
Under pressure from U.S. farmer groups, Clinton cleared the way for the sale of U.S. food to Cuba in October 2000, but he was not up for re-election. In the meantime, Democratic nominee Al Gore tried to make inroads into the traditionally Republican Cuban-American base by vowing to resist any openings to the Castro government.
Finally, President Bush implemented new restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba in June 2004 after a group of Cuban-American members of the Florida Legislature warned him that he could lose the support of the exile community if a tougher line against Castro had not been taken. That year, even Democratic contenders Howard Dean and John Kerry reversed their previous anti-embargo stance.
But there's more. Washington's alleged democratic commitment on Cuba often ended up rewarding Castro for bad actions and punishing him for more positive ones.
When Cuba halted its support for revolutionary forces in Africa and Latin America and its special relationship with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, U.S. authorities tightened the embargo with the CDA. When Castro introduced capitalist-style measures in 1993 and 1994 and began to send timid signals to the U.S. for an improvement of bilateral ties, especially on migration issues, the United States reinforced its sanctions with Helms-Burton.
On the other hand, when Cuba's economic reforms virtually came to a stop in the late 1990s, the U.S. lifted some restrictions on agricultural trade with Havana. In 2003, following the long-term imprisonment of 75 dissidents and the execution of three hijackers in Cuba, both the Senate and the House voted overwhelmingly to lift the travel ban to the island.
In order to influence Cuba's future direction, Washington should adopt a more flexible policy that establishes realistic conditions for re-engagement, responds to changes in Cuba, and serves the interests of the United States, not those of domestic groups that are willing to pursue their narrow goals regardless of the behavior of the Castro government.
Otherwise, the current all-or-nothing approach on Cuba will likely continue to achieve just nothing.
Paolo Spadoni is a visiting assistant professor in the department of political science at Rollins College in Winter Park. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.
Copyright © 2007, Orlando Sentinel
While I agree with Paolo's central point, he misstates John Kerry's position. I don't think Kerry had ever spoken in favor of ending the embargo so he did not reverse his position. He had supported freedom of travel before his campaign and repeated that position during it, including in a statement buried in his web site. What was disappointing is that although he stood by his good position on travel while campaigning in Florida, he did not aggressively challenge Bush on the issue--which I think would have won him votes in Florida and elsewhere.