THE BLOG
01/07/2015 04:24 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Parallels in Myanmar and Cuba Policy

Maria Pavlova via Getty Images

Though still in the early days after the Obama Administration's announcement further adjusting its approach to Cuba, businesses, vocal opponents, vocal supporters and even curious bystanders are clamoring to understand what impact it will have. The jockeying by interested parties is similar to that in the days following Secretary Clinton's April 2012 announcement that the U.S. would ease its financial sanctions against Myanmar. Human rights groups, members of Congress, and diaspora in the U.S. all expressed concerns about "doing too much, too soon" and rewarding a regime populated with former junta leaders that they thought had done very little. Myanmar is an interesting and useful example in the wake of President Obama's December 17 announcement; there are many similarities -- and also important differences -- in what will likely occur between the U.S. and Cuba in the coming days, months and years.

President Obama announced the U.S. will restore regular diplomatic relations, advance cooperation on issues of mutual interest, including counter-narcotics, migration, combating trafficking-in-persons, the Ebola crisis and shared environmental challenges, authorize expanded travel, increase remittances and grow bilateral trade, expand financial services, and ease export limits on a variety of products. Additionally, the U.S. will permit the sale of technology to improve Internet access in Cuba, reform the application of U.S. sanctions to Cubans in third countries, and have the U.S. State Department review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. This seems like a laundry list of "gives," but these are in fact incremental steps -- particularly given that the embargo remains in force -- that will improve the everyday lives of Cubans and their families abroad and begin to thaw relations between the two countries.

The Myanmar policy team, which both my business partner and I were a part of, worked to design an "action for action" policy, matching Myanmar developments with U.S. initiatives to further push the reform process. From August 2011 until Secretary Clinton's April 2012 announcement of our policy changes (implementation of the announced financial restriction easings occurred in July 2012), the Myanmar government had among other things engaged in a constructive dialogue with prodemocracy icon with Aung San Suu Kyi, passed progressive legislation on the right to assemble, allowed for greater personal freedoms, released hundreds of political prisoners and entered into ceasefires with armed ethnic groups. The Castros of Cuba are not getting something for nothing either; at roughly the same time in 2011, Raul Castro had been driving economic opening as well, including decollectivization, legalization of home and car sales, wider use of market prices and the expansion of self-employment. More recently, the Cuban regime has released political prisoners, and is allowing its people greater access to the Internet.

Since the president's announcement, several well-known U.S. businesses have already made statements about investigating possibilities, but are cautious, if optimistic, about their market entry prospects. This is smart, not necessarily in considering what specific U.S. regulatory changes may or may not come, but in light of what awaits companies in Cuba. The initial "gold rush" mentality of business toward Myanmar has produced little more than rhetoric, with few major U.S. corporations entering the Southeast Asian market. Sanctions are not the only issue preventing companies from quickly establishing presence in Myanmar (and they will not be in the Cuba case, either): dilapidated infrastructure, poor capacity and local regulatory restrictions all make investment difficult. As businesses began to investigate the Myanmar market, they encountered a country that had been frozen in amber since 1962, with a new civilian government littered with former military generals now trying to figure out how to undo decades of economic mismanagement and build a democratic foundation for the country's future. Cuba will serve a very similar platter to U.S. businesses, with the bonus of a mixed market system that still heavily favors communism.

Inability to overcome decades of mistrust, particularly on the part of some members of Congress, human rights organizations and the Cuban diaspora will result in increased calls for reimposing restrictive measures. Sanctions have become a catch-all in dealing with repressive regimes and recently seem to be the first response when governments that actions that run counter to American goals. Sanctions can be an effective tool, but are only one tool among many to deter or encourage certain behaviors by foreign governments. Both the Myanmar and Cuban sanctions programs were too blunt, casting a wide net capturing everyone -- the bad actors, but also innocent people. The Myanmar sanctions program was reshaped to be a more targeted and flexible tool to go after decisionmakers and influencers that continue to undermine reform efforts, engage in human rights abuses, and facilitate military trade with North Korea, rather than the country -- and its entire population -- writ large. There was no good reason to cut off foreign citizens only looking to grow their companies or do business abroad, particularly those that supported democracy and human rights, from the international financial system. As with Cuba, such sweeping sanctions not only envelope the actors you want to punish, but also the very people you want to support and protect. A scorched earth economic policy is not necessary, and there are other sanctions options and policy tools that can more effectively achieve U.S. interests.

While I, with some obvious bias, will attest that our Myanmar policy was then and continues to be successful, there are plenty of cynics and critics out there that will claim that Myanmar is not the best point of comparison for re-examining our Cuba policy. Recently, the media has claimed that reforms in Myanmar have stalled -- or even backslid -- that freedoms have been curbed, and that racial and ethnic tension has risen. Myanmar certainly has its problems, but none of these are new. In fact, with greater press freedom emerging there, we are getting better real time and more accurate information on issues that would have once been only the subject of rumors and tea shop talk. We now have a direct line of communication with the government, which had been absent for decades, allowing our ambassador (after diplomatic ties were upgraded in 2012 for the first time in more than 20 years) and visiting senior officials, companies, NGOs and foundations an avenue to speak -- in a direct and un-sugarcoated manner -- with key Myanmar decisionmakers and counterparts on the issues facing the country and the best ways to resolve them. Myanmar is now a different country than it even recently was, and it continues to change and progress each day.

There comes a time when policymakers have to consider whether waiting out, or freezing out, a specific government -- be it communist, military-dominated, dynastic or any other dictatorial regime -- will eventually bring about change, or if instead just pushing the door open a crack will provide more catalyst for change. Cuba has been taking small steps so far, but perhaps these re-established diplomatic exchanges, greater internet access, cooperation on mutual concerns and interests and increased grassroots people-to-people interactions will provide a needed boost and ultimately do more to promote a more free and developed Cuba. This is a risk for the Castros as well, make no mistake. Though Cuba, unlike Myanmar had been, was already open to the rest of the world, re-engagement with the U.S. will not only show the wealth of possibilities ahead for Cubans, but will also show them what they have been missing for years -- and sanctions will no longer be to blame.