By Tim Ashby
Senior Research Fellow for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Commenting on the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, President Obama referred to the legendary South African figure as “one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.” Yet, until just five years ago, Mr Mandela was on the US terror watch list, a grossly anachronistic Cold War absurdity equaled only by the continuation of Cuba on the same discredited list. Sadly, despite fundamental changes both in Cuba and the global geo-strategic balance, the Caribbean island will probably remain as an “enemy” for decades to come due to the rigidities of US domestic politics and the lack of immediate incentives to propel change.
The position that the Obama administration holds, just as its predecessors did, is that Cuba is intrinsically different from any of its adversaries in the Cold War and thus requires an unremitting campaign of hostility. It seems that it is well beyond the ability of the White House to mobilize credible strategies to cure a diplomatic paralysis that seemingly has lasted forever. We now know, despite what the administration has stated on scores of prior occasions, that it will never allow an entente cordiale to develop between Washington and Havana unless the Castro leadership eliminates itself. This stipulation has never yet seen itself applied in various versions, but has never entirely been different from the likes of Iran or North Korea. That is why we must take note of the fact that the embargo aimed at Havana may be more of a political strategy than an economic one. If it were economic, it would be even more open to a rational solution than has proven to be the case.
Cuba Has Changed on Its Own Accord, Not Because of the Creativity of US Policy
The US trade embargo has done enduring damage to Cuba’s economy, with the effects of sanctions being registered every day by Cubans and by international businesses engaged in commercial transactions with their governments. Despite US efforts to strangle the island’s economy, over the past five years, Cuba has undertaken a multitude of inventive economic, fiscal and social reforms. Despite some setbacks, small, private businesses are beginning to thrive, ordinary Cubans can buy and sell real estate and motor vehicles, Cubans can travel abroad without fear of being denied reentry to their country. There is a new sense of optimism about the future, in which the best of two worlds will be brought forth.
The generation of Cubans born after the Revolution is increasingly well educated and generally more aware of other economic and political systems. Most will readily admit that the original communist economic model has failed, and they are now at least cautiously optimistic that it is being gradually replaced by a model that will incorporate the positive goals of the Revolution – universal education, health care, social equality – with an expansion of market forces.
Despite over half a century of active hostility by the US and decades of purportedly subversive activities, Cuba has cooperated with the US in a variety of areas including drug interdiction and hurricane warnings. The island has also been a market for billions of dollars of American exports, despite the fact that the trade is overwhelmingly one way (Cuban imports are illegal in the United States).
US Policy – Hypocrisy and Timidity
Last month (November 2013) President Obama was the honored guest at a private fundraiser held at the Miami home of Jorge Mas, president of the Cuban American National Foundation. Obama’s remarks were specific about the need for US policy change towards Cuba, but were muddled over how it would be manifested, indicating how tangled and confused Washington policy remained. Obama declared:
“We’ve started to see changes on the island. Now, I think we all understand that, ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”
While the president’s remarks were greeted by warm applause from the largely Cuban-American audience, they are merely rhetorical – a reworking of hackneyed phrases dating back to Obama’s days as a senator. The radical wing of Cuban-Americans represented by politicians such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Robert Menendez perpetuate a feral mentality that would only disappear with the overthrow of the Cuban government and its replacement by descendants of those who ruled Cuba under Batista. For example, former Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart (ironically, Fidel Castro’s nephew), is obsessed with becoming President of Cuba. While serving as a US Congressman, he openly advocated the assassination of Fidel Castro (illegal under US law), he defended Velentin Hernández, who was convicted of murdering Luciano Nieves, a fellow Cuban exile who supported negotiations with the Cuban government. He also lobbied extensively for the release and pardon of Cuban exile Orlando Bosch, a bona fide and self-admitted terrorist who was involved in the 1976 bombing of Cubana Flight 455 which killed 78 passengers.
No Change Can Be Expected
Regardless of who succeeds Obama as president, Washington’s anachronistic policy towards Cuba can be expected to continue even with the inevitable succession of a new generation of leaders on the island. The Cuban embargo has been a treasured legacy passed from Republicans to Democrats and back. Nevertheless, most US politicians have no idea why they should continue to support the embargo. It is now part of the American cultural and social legacy, Monday Night Football.
During one of the author’s visits to Cuba, a senior official told with a bitter shake of his grey head: “Your government will never be satisfied even if we [the Cuban government] stood on the Malecón with pistols to our heads and blew our brains out.”
The US propensity to act with dignity and provide a solution to diplomatic problems in other parts of the world seems to be beyond Washington’s ability when applied to Cuba. Washington would be wise to understand that, if it has any hope for even a remotely respectable policy towards Cuba, it must give up its lunatic stance that has no prospects for success or respectability.
Tim Ashby is a Senior Research Fellow for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, former counter-terrorism consultant at the State Department, and current best-selling author.
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