My thoughts on the world around me

What Obama’s Cuba Policy Ought to Be

In the ebb and flow of politics, change is the ultimate catalyst for achieving better government. As in the market, where demand for an old and unattractive product wanes, an unsuccessful political leader or policy, too, can lose favor. It is only a question of time before people realize that while one path may lead to stagnation, there is another that leads to possibility. When that time comes, the superior concept rises to the top.

In the 50 years since Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the United States has primarily advanced protectionist policies. On February 7, 1962, following the expropriation of numerous U.S.-owned properties in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order imposing a trade embargo on Castro’s government. In 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first of many travel restrictions went into effect. Most recently, the Helms-Burton Act was enacted in 1996 to penalize foreign companies that do business in Cuba by preventing them from doing business in the U.S.

What effects have these measures had?

The Cuban people live in poverty. They have little or no access to our medicines, products and other essential items. They are silenced by a repressive government that long ago erased their freedom of expression. And yet, while Cubans feel disdain for their leaders, they are equally scornful of the U.S. The trade embargo has crippled their economic opportunities, and the travel ban has kept families apart for decades.

After 50 years and 10 U.S. presidents, isn’t it time for the U.S. to rethink its position? It may help to look at a successful model.

In technology, the Internet is a powerful tool because it is open to everyone. Its emphasis on collaboration and integration allows people from all over the world to freely exchange ideas and solve complex issues.  The Internet’s openness is a strategy that breaks down barriers, physical or not, and empowers the individual who wields its awesome power.

When applied to Cuba, the key to reforming the communist nation is to bombard it with access and information. The U.S. must allow U.S. citizens to travel into Cuba and ignite the flow of commerce. It ought to lift the trade embargo, so that Americans may benefit from the sugar and tobacco industries, and Cubans may have access to medicine, Hollywood, and apple pie. The U.S. also needs to assign a special envoy to Cuba who will oversee this transformation and assure the Cuban people that the U.S. views its neighbor’s success as a priority.

But as with the Internet, these political measures require collaboration. Once the U.S. changes its policies, it will be up to the Cuban people to act. We will provide the tools, but they will have to take the courageous steps toward democracy and capitalism. Will Cubans prefer a repressive government, or one that denies them nothing? Will they side with the local government that rations what little food they have, or follow the global economy that rewards innovation and hard work? Only they can decide that.

Communism erected walls throughout the island and in the people’s minds. We should tear them down as we once did in Berlin. If the U.S. infuses the island with hope, then there is the possibility that the inhabitants will once again dream of something larger than themselves.

After 50 years of stagnation, a different path seems very attractive.


January 27, 2009 - Posted by | Barack Obama, Cuba, Economics, Foreign Policy, International Trade, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Very well written.
    I came from Cuba in 1960, and I can still remember the sadness and agony my grandmother went through when she could not go and see her brother before dying. He was a doctor in Cuba, and therefore they were forbidden to leave the island. My story is one of millions of cubans who decided to leave their country because our parents wanted something better for us, they wanted us to have the freedom they could not have. I can remember my fathers eyes filled with tears remembering his adored Santa Clara and the palmeras that according to him, nowhere else in the planet could there be more beautiful ones.
    Fifty years have gone by, and my father is no longer alive nor is my grandmother, but I suspect that if they had a voice they would prefer to have the embargo lifted. Too many years of suffering, of families being torn apart and nothing has been gained. My fellow cubans have been blind for too long and they need to see and experience what we have, what we know, what we can achieve in such a great nation.
    Cubans in the island must have that opportunity and then, and only then, can there be a fire from within.

    Comment by amc | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  2. I have never understood the political stance of the powerful Cuban American influence in Washington in a post-Berlin wall era. It is obvious to the most incompetent that the embargo, once a way to pressure the communist government in Cuba, a proxy of the USRR, has failed to achieve the goal to remove Castro from power. Also, a more modern version, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, has not prevented the island to do business with rest of the world. Once again, this reaffirmation of the original embargo, responded to several powerful interests that had nothing to do with promoting a change in the island; on the contrary, it was intended to preserve the status quo for as long as possible. Mr. Helms, a Republican of North Carolina, a tobacco producing state did what other politician owe to do –represent the interests of his constituents. Indiana, home of Republican Burton, was also vulnerable to raw materials and the agriculturally rich Cuba. Here alone you have an almost perfect storm: an ultra conservative Republican powerhouse protecting their interest (free trade works as long as it does not affect the interest of the immediate parties) fueling the anger and desperation of two generations of Cubans forced to abandon their country, but keeping their integrity. Behind the curtains, a secretive maze of dealers and brokers that enjoy ‘cafecitos’ in Little Havana. Now with both Indiana and North Carolina lost to Democrats, and a domestic and global pressure to create new markets, it is time to kick the Spaniards and other Europeans out of Cuba. Expect new initiatives with Cuba –as well as Iran– with obscure negotiations to preserve the dinosaurs in some sort of power at both side of the Caribbean. Expect the local Republican intelligentsia from Miami becoming more open to reconsider the possibility of initiating conversations with Havana to assist the deprived community, stuck with the memories of Fidel. They can always argue that it is to balance Chavez’ influence in Latin America and look great in front of the old folks enjoying a domino game on Eight Street. Expect and wish for the perfect storm –not a hurricane this time.

    Comment by GR | January 27, 2009 | Reply

  3. GR,

    Your thoughts on Mr. Helms’ motivations with respect to the trade embargo bring interesting issues to my attention. My article was aimed at addressing what the changes in Cuba policy ought to be. Your questions actually need answering first: (1) What were the U.S. interests during those 50 years of failed policies? (2) Can those interests be allayed for a more effective policy?
    Without generalizing too much (at the bottom of every political decision is a political interest), my response to your questions is that we must reconcile an effective Cuba policy with satisfying U.S. political interests.
    How we answer these questions dictates our level of involvement in global issues. Why did we send troops to Iraq rather than reinforce our existing presence in Afghanistan? Why have we done nothing about the genocides in Darfur? What is truly behind our alliance with Israel?
    At the moment, I don’t have an answer.

    Comment by socialvox | January 29, 2009 | Reply

  4. Some of the answers to your questions have room for speculation. I believe we still don’t know the details of Krushchev and Kennedy after the October crisis. Can that pact still be alive today, dictating how we talk, or not talk to a communist leader like Fidel? I mean, if we are talking to a criminal like Kadafi we could also talk to Raul Castro.
    It is not so much how we answer those questions that dictates our level of involvement in global issues. I believe it is what we ask what will determine our position. It is clear now why Bush senior did not complete the job in Iraq, going after Baghdad. It was the Saudis request of not disturbing the balance with Iran that decided the US actions. Why now then -when it was harder to sell a war to the American people– that attacking Iraq was not going to destabilize the middle-east? The proof is that Iran became a major player in the region.
    In regard to Cuba, I believe we both agree in that the embargo has not provide a significant change; on the contrary. The question could be how to reestablish conversations and what type of concession is the Obama administration should be able to make, internally (i.e. the influential Cuban-American powerhouse) and externally with the Castro family.
    I am glad to see that there is a different approach to diplomacy with the new cabinet, and a new disposition to understand that the US is not longer in a position to individually define the direction of the world.

    Comment by GR | January 30, 2009 | Reply

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