Those who argue for conditionality often say “the embargo is the last negotiating chip we have to demand political and economic reforms in Cuba.” The problem is that Cuba sanctions cannot be used as bargaining chips under Helms-Burton, since it conditions the suspension of any and all sanctions on congressional recognition of a democracy in Cuba and the absence of the Castro brothers from power.
This “all or nothing” approach effectively places U.S. policy in the hands of the Cuban government, making it easier for Cuban officials to resist political reform and dictate the degree of American influence on the island. The worst part is that this policy isn’t even necessary to maintain sanctions on Cuba, since such sanctions could be managed on an individual basis by the Executive Branch, as it does with other adversary nations.
All Helms-Burton does is tie the hands of the U.S. government, denying it the flexibility to to respond intelligently to developments in the island. The clumsiness of this law cannot be overstated, yet it remains the bedrock of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
It is almost impossible to influence events in Cuba without having a presence in Cuba. While we waste time debating whether or not to “unilaterally lift the embargo”, countries such as Iran, Russia, and China are strengthening their economic footholds in the Island. Now more than ever, the inflexibility of U.S. policy has the ironic effect of hurting and delaying the very democratic changes it seeks to produce by continuing to strengthen the hand of reactionaries and opportunists, rather than reformers, within the Cuban government.
Yoani Sánchez’s visit to Miami next week presents an opportunity to embrace a sober debate on the current and future relationship between the United States and Cuba, and question the value of a policy that has failed to facilitate change for 55 years. A comprehensive review of existing legislation, particularly the counterproductive Helms-Burton Act, and calling for greater dialogue among the U.S. and Cuban governments, Cuban civil society, and the exile community, would be a good place to start.
Ricardo Herrero is deputy executive director of the Cuba Study Group (www.cubastudygroup.org). He lives in Miami.