America's Cuba policy has three distinctive aspects. First, though Bill Clinton and Barack Obama changed it at the margins, it has been remarkably consistent, regardless of who occupies the White House. Second, it has lasted for half a century despite the utter failure to achieve its declared purpose: producing fundamental political change in Cuba. Third, our closest allies, Canada, the European Union (EU), and Japan have rejected its premises and practices.
The governments of South and Central America don't support Washington's approach, either. Thus at April's Summit of the America's in Cartagena Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil -- regional heavyweights friendly toward the United States -- criticized Cuba's exclusion. This was unsurprising: at the 2009 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), from which body Cuba was expelled in 1962 and has been kept out principally because of Washington's insistence, a vote to initiate Cuba's readmission carried the day, showing that the resistance to ostracizing Cuba is not limited to leftist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Obama's sole defender in Cartagena was Canada's conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Yet Canada has never followed Washington's Cuba policy. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 (though in 1977 each country established an "Interest Section" in Switzerland's embassy in the other), but Canada never did and now has substantial economic transactions with Cuba. It is currently Cuba's third largest trade partner after Venezuela and China. Canadian companies have big investments in Cuban mining, hotels and tourism. Tourists from Canada exceed those from any other country; some 1 million visited Cuba last year.
The European Union's "Common Position" on Cuba, adopted in 1996, does emphasize the importance of improving human rights, but it rests on the assumption that this goal is best achieved through engagement, not isolation. The EU's trade with Cuba now exceeds Venezuela's, and Europe accounts for about half of all foreign investment in Cuba and roughly the same proportion of tourists.
The world's other economic powers have chosen a similar approach. Take Brazil. Its trade with Cuba totals $642 million. Its foreign investments have increased substantially -- a case in point: the Brazilian company Grupo Odebrecht is, with help from its home government, modernizing Cuba's Mariel port and building a container-shipping terminal -- and it extended Cuba $1 billion in credit in 2008 and $600 million this year. China's trade with Cuba totals $1.8 billion and it has invested in Cuba's raw material sector, particularly in nickel. Companies from Angola, Brazil, China, Canada, India, Malaysia, Norway, Russia, Spain, and Vietnam are seeking oil and gas in Cuban waters. Cuba is estimated to have 5-20 billion barrels of oil and 8-10 trillion cubic feet of gas offshore; and if production proves commercially viable, the effects of the U.S. embargo would diminish further and Cuba would no longer need Venezuela's oil subsidy, which is precariously tied to Hugo Chavez's longevity.
In contrast to all of this activity, Washington's Cuba policy remains frozen. Diplomatic relations, severed soon after Castro ousted the pro-American dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and nationalized various U.S. economic assets, have not restored. The economic embargo was tightened by the 1996 Helms Burton Act. That legislation failed to generate democratization in Cuba. It certainly did not benefit ordinary Cubans, whose interests successive American leaders have claimed to be guided by. But it did provoke protests from governments in South America, Europe, and Canada because of its provisions for penalties against foreign companies, and overseas affiliates of U.S. firms, conducting business with Cuba.
Obama shifted course a bit in 2011. Limits on the number of U.S. airports permitted to service flights to and from Cuba were lifted. Visits to Cuba are no longer limited to Cuban Americans with relatives on the island. Educational, religious, and cultural organizations can organize trips and programs aimed at promoting Cuban civil society and people-to-people contact. But, with some exceptions, such as permitting cash sales of foods and medicine, the economic embargo remains in place, as do its underlying, and bankrupt, assumptions.
Cuba is now undergoing change. An aging and ailing Fidel Castro resigned as president in 2008 and was succeeded by his octogenarian younger brother, Raul, signifying the onset of a larger generational change. Pinched by the end of Soviet-era subsidies, Cuban authorities have introduced limited economic reforms, leasing state land to private farmers and permitting some categories of private enterprise. But Havana still rejects the principle of far-reaching political change (free elections and full civil liberties) as a precondition for scrapping the embargo. There's no reason to expect a change of heart, particularly because other major economic powers' willingness to trade with and invest in Cuba has made the American boycott less painful.
Here's the odd thing: Washington invoked economic and cultural ties and political engagement as effective means to promote change in the Soviet Union and China and has more recently extended this logic to Vietnam, and even North Korea to a degree. Does Cuba, with a size and population comparable to Pennsylvania's, pose a bigger threat than Brezhnev's Soviet Union or Mao's China did? Is it more repressive? Surely not.
Our Cuba policy attests to the ability of special interests (in this instance, segments of the Cuban-American community, which constitute a powerful voting bloc in Florida and, to lesser extent, New Jersey and have like-minded representatives in Congress) to stifle creative thought and action in Washington. Apart from that, the policy has little to show for itself. It's time to junk it.