Beating the Drum on Cuba Policy

For a small country, U.S. think tanks, journalists and businesses are paying Cuba a great deal of attention these days. The latest in a steady drumbeat of white papers, policy briefs and news articles to call for new U.S. policies toward the island comes from Roger Cohen, who wrote in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine that history will judge U.S. policy "[b]adly, I think, especially since the end of the cold war." He continues,

if the embargo had come down then, back in 1989, I doubt the [Castro] regime would have survived. But the grudges were too deep, and a mistake was made. Today the policy makes little sense. The United States dislikes Chávez but maintains diplomatic relations with Venezuela. I think Obama should add to the measures he has already announced by offering to open full diplomatic relations with Cuba immediately.

Cohen's article provides a fairly leisurely tour through the politics of Cuba, both in Cuba and in the United States. Having spent some time in Cuba, he also provides an accessible account of daily life there. His thoughts on policy seem like a bit of an afterthought, however, and he stops short of recommending more dramatic policy changes that others have suggested.

The week prior, a group of U.S. business associations, including the one for which I work, wrote President-elect Obama to suggest the need for a more dramatic policy shift.

In the short term, the groups asked for the temporary suspension of certain restrictions on trade that would allow American companies to help Cuba to respond more effectively to the humanitarian crisis in the wake of recent hurricanes and storms in Cuba. The associations also urged President-elect Obama to "immediately remove travel restrictions and allow Americans to act as ambassadors of freedom and American values to Cuba," and to engage in bilateral discussions with Cuban government.

The dozen business organizations which signed the letter are among the largest in the country and include American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, National Foreign Trade Council and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They called for a comprehensive reexamination of policy and eventually the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

Earlier in the week, I released a new policy brief, the Case for a New Cuba Policy, which featured calls for new approaches to Cuba from former senior Clinton administration officials who were responsible for U.S. Cuba policy. They included former Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs at National Security Council Arturo Valenzuela; former Assistant Secretaries of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Jeffrey Davidow, Peter Romero and Alexander Watson; and former U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations Thomas Pickering and Nancy Soderberg.

Ambassador James Dobbins, another former Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs at the NSC, says in the report that, "Cuba policy is long past due for substantial revision, and domestically there is waning support. Flooding Cuba with American tourists, journalists, and culture is the fastest way to promote change. I'd almost completely reverse current policy."

And, as I wrote last month, the Brookings Institution released a new report, "Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World."

These are just the latest drumbeats. The Council on Foreign Relations put out a report in May, "U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality," which called for a new approach to Cuba.

The task force, chaired by former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and former Commander of U.S. Southern Command James Hill, calls for freer travel, more trade, a new U.S. diplomatic initiative and the repeal of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. It also called on the United States to "assure Cubans on the island that the United States will pursue a respectful arm's-length relationship with a democratic Cuba." The report's section on Cuba concluded that,

The time is ripe to show the Cuban people, especially the younger generations, that an alternative exists to permanent hostility between these two nations and that the United States can play a positive role in Cuba's future.

The flurry of reports suggests some pent up interest on the part of policy wonks, educational, religious and humanitarian groups, and the business community. Next January will mark the first time in eight years where there is a chance that the next U.S. President could loosen restrictions on Cuba. A number of groups, who have been noticeably quiet over the past few years, are watching closely.

These are not the last of the drumbeats. Next year, I suspect you will see more calls for changes in policy. (In particular, watch for something from this organization.)

As these reports suggest, a new approach to Cuba is fairly easy to accomplish. President-elect Obama could send a signal to the Cuban people and the world by changing Cuba policy via a simple Federal Register notice and diplomatic outreach. As the Council on Foreign Relations says, the time is ripe.