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Changes in Cuba Challenge Obama's Will to Respond and Change Course

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In today's Washington Post, George Will reaches the conclusion that many of us have held as an abiding faith for some time -- America's Cuba policy doesn't work and its counterproductive. His column (available in full here) concludes as follows:

Today, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba by means of economic embargoes and travel restrictions serves two Castro goals: It provides an alibi for Cuba's social conditions, and it insulates Cuba from some of the political and cultural forces that brought down communism in Eastern Europe. Barack Obama, who was born more than two years after Castro seized power, might want to rethink this policy, now that even Castro is having second thoughts about fundamentals.

Will's last comment frames the right question. Why, in the face of really big changes taking place in Cuba is the President so utterly failing to capitalize on these developments, even to help realize the goals of his own policy?

For some U.S. political figures in both parties, there is nothing that Cuba could do -- short of dissolving its government and economic system unilaterally to curry favor with the United States - that would satisfy their definitions of progress. But President Barack Obama was not supposed to be from that school of thought - not because we imagined him or wanted him to be different, but because he declared himself to be.

Let us not forget in the 2008 presidential campaign that he expressed his willingness to meet with President Raúl Castro, with an agenda and with pre-planning, if there were something real to discuss. He said on one occasion "I would never, ever, rule out a course of action that could advance the cause of liberty." He promised he would not substitute posturing for serious policy -- "we have seen too much of that in other areas over the past six years.

He said before the Cuban American National Foundation and in an early op-ed column in the Miami Herald that political prisoners in Cuba required justice, that a goal of U.S. policy was to make Cuban families less dependent on the Castro regime, and that efforts by Cuba's government to liberalize its system would be met by steps to help solidify openings into lasting change.

As recently as Friday, Cuba's Catholic Church revealed the names of four more political prisoners to be released, under the agreement it made with the government this spring, which will bring to 36 the number of dissidents freed. The agreement calls for all 52 of the remaining prisoners from Cuba's 2003 round up to be let go. This agreement is not uncontroversial among hardliners in the government or the Cuban communist party, but it is being honored nonetheless.

This past week, Cuba's government also announced that it would lay off 500,000 Cuban citizens on state payrolls, and take steps to help the private sector economy absorb them, which sounds an awful lot like they will be less dependent on the government.

These changes, along with others already made, are redefining, as many analysts have written, Cuba's social contract with its own people, and represent extraordinarily difficult decisions taken even in the context of a one-party state.

In other words, the conditions that President Obama articulated as core to his policy toward Cuba are beginning to be realized. While Cuba rejects the notion that actions it takes can or should be linked to gestures that liberalize U.S. policy -- that is Obama's policy. By failing to act in response to what Cuba is doing, the President is undermining the credibility of his Cuba program.

In the weeks following the announced prisoner deal, Administration officials repeatedly promised action. Obama, they said, would use his executive authority to ease limits on travel short of tourism (academic, religious, cultural, sports, and the like) not expressly to reward the prisoner release, but doing exactly that in practice.

But as summer rapidly turns to fall, the prospects for positive action are appearing to dim.

Given a chance to reflect on reforms in Cuba resulting in layoffs for ten percent of the nation's workforce, P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman said, "I mean, we're looking for action by Cuba, but I don't have a particular comment on about what they've announced."

Democratic leaders are being advised that action on travel -- by the White House or Congress -- would be politically inconvenient before November. According to Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Albio Sires said "this is not something you want to do now," but changing Cuba policy is something he -- a Cuban-American hardliner from New Jersey opposes all the time.

Others -- like Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela - blame Cuba for continuing to detain Alan Gross, saying action on liberalizing policy is not possible while he remains in prison. Gross, a USAID contractor, has been behind bars since December 2009 after illegally entering Cuba (on multiple occasions), funded by a "regime change" program, with the goal of handing out high tech equipment to Cubans, activities illegal under Cuban (and, frankly, US law) without government authorization. My organization has repeatedly called on Cuba to release Mr. Gross, but by making progress on ideas like the freedom to travel hostage to a resolution of his case is not going to spring Mr. Gross any time soon.

Blaming Gross, blaming politics, blaming Fidel Castro, no, these are excuses for inaction, posturing instead of policy making, what the president promised -- as a candidate -- we would not be getting from him.

Failing to act has real consequences. It says to the Cubans that Obama, despite his words to the contrary, and some very positive but smaller steps, is not the sharp departure from the past that he said he would be. Inaction sends a message to Cuban hardliners that the U.S. is simply unreachable and unreasonable not matter how many reforms the government undertakes. Inaction will also send them a message about the reforms that Obama is undertaking of the now discredited and dangerous USAID program that landed Mr. Gross in prison in the first place.

The National Security Program of the Third Way recently argued that refusing to engage Cuba or to help the reforms move forward puts the U.S. in weak position to criticize the Cuban government. By opting for silence over action we ignore the history of transitions, as Tomas Bilbao wrote recently, which teaches us to encourage even incremental steps when they happen.

What we're asking Obama and the Congress to do isn't politically difficult. After all, we are asking them to restore the constitutional rights of Americans to travel, to create jobs and profits here in America by opening up the Cuban market to travel and trade, to put money in the pockets of Cuban families by creating more tourism jobs on the island when their economy needs more private sector activity, and to honor the pleas of the Cuban people that we end the ban on travel as a sign of solidarity to Cuba's civil society.

It's all easy in comparison to what Cubans are experiencing. We should be on their side and acting -- strongly and promptly -- as the President led us to believe that he would do.