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It should come as no surprise that it happened, nor should the timing. President Barack Obama’s lifting of the restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to the island was a campaign promise and presented an easy way to set the tone for the Summit of the Americas from April 17 to 19 in Trinidad and Tobago. It won’t go as far as most will want, but it helps to set a new debate within the United States—which is where policy change toward Cuba has to play out, not the Summit of the Americas.
The restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island, implemented by the administration of President George W. Bush, were never popular, even among many Cuban-Americans. While their stated purpose was to deprive even more the Cuban government of resources, the truth was they seemed downright mean spirited and inhumane—an example of a policy that had gone to yet another unprecedented extreme: of denying family members the right to unite and help one another in need. But even at a strategic level, if the intent was to promote independent activity and thought on the island, denial of individuals to send money or transmit ideas through person-to-person contact gave the Cuban regime even more uncontested ability to shape the perceptions and destinies of the people who remained on the island.
Criticism to the announcement has been muted and has come primarily from the Cuban-American Diaz-Balart congressmen (Lincoln and Mario) from South Florida. By the same token, Cuban-American Senator from Florida Mel Martinez praised the measures. They were even met with support by the people who matter most: human rights and dissidents inside Cuba, including Hector Palacios, Elizardo Sanchez and Vladimiro Roca. I suspect we won’t hear many calls for the restrictions to be put back in place.
Ironically, those who may criticize them the most will be those who wished for more. But merely wishing something to happen and denouncing it when it doesn’t is facile. (The most sensible, such as Phil Peters, see this as a process.)
First, lifting the broader ban on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba requires Congressional action. There is currently a bill in the Senate that will lift that ban, but it is out of the control of President Obama to act unilaterally. Second, amending Treasury Department’s restrictions on other forms of exchanges and travel (educational, humanitarian, and marketing) and other elements of the embargo–whatever their merits—are secondary. It would be impossible to justify sweeping those aside first before eliminating the crueler aspects of recent policy. And doing all of it in one fell swoop seems, well, too politically risky.
And then there is the overall architecture of the embargo—codified in Helms Burton. Some say that these elements can be picked apart by executive order and don’t require Congressional action. In the letter of the law, that may be true, but as a recent Brookings Institution Report on Cuba details, better to try to loosen some elements of isolation to further what is the crux of U.S. policy towards the region: supporting the development of independent civil society and improvement in human rights on the island. A wholescale lifting of the embargo now doesn’t get us there. Because, let’s face it, the embargo’s in place and human rights haven’t improved. Rather than (what some want to continue doing but has gotten us no where) conditioning improvements in human rights on the wholescale lifting of the embargo or (what others want us to do but is politically impossible) lift the embargo without any change, we should experiment tinkering with elements to accomplish what should remain our goal, ensuring a peaceful process of political change inside Cuba—all the while retaining the capacity to pull back if it doesn’t work. Losing all possibilities of leverage would be positively undiplomatic….in the real politic sense, of course.
And on the question of whether this will be enough to satisfy the other American heads of state at the Summit of the Americas? Why should it matter? For decades we in the U.S. have criticized how U.S. policy toward its southern neighbors is seen through the prism of Cuban policy. How sad it would be if Latin Americans also let U.S. policy toward an island of 11 million people (for all its possible flaws) be the prism through which they see their relations with us.
This is largely a domestic issue. Change, however incremental, has begun. Now let the debate begin.
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.