Recently, the U.S. and Cuban officials held constructive talks focused on migration, aviation security, search and rescue, and consular document fraud. State Department officials said the resumption of talks does not represent a change in policy toward Cuba. But the archaic policy is in need of an overhaul.
Why? The policy of isolation continues to affect international relations. In 2013, for the 22nd year in a row, the U.N. General Assembly voted against the U.S. trade sanctions by a margin of 188-2 (the two are the United States and Israel). The overwhelming result should give the administration pause. Additionally, enforcement of the embargo has angered allies in Europe and Canada that conduct business on the island, and Latin American countries have declared that there will not be another Summit of the Americas if Cuba is not at the table.
Cuba policy has long been hostage to domestic politics and Florida’s 29 electoral votes. But Florida’s demographics are changing. The older, anti-Castro hardliners are no longer the dominant Hispanic majority. Last April, Florida Trend magazine reported that Cubans are down to 29 percent of the Hispanic population in the state.
Sentiments are also changing. The younger generation of Cuban-Americans are not single-issue voters, and much more likely to support engagement. These trends provide the administration the space to restructure Cuba policy consistent with national interests. So, what should be done?
• First, the U.S. should deepen commercial ties with Cubans on the island. The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act conditions an end to the embargo on Cuba if it allows free, multi-party elections. Meanwhile, China is the United States’ number one trade partner. The president should use executive power to eliminate all restrictions for travel and remittances, authorize increased trade with Cuba’s private businesses and entrepreneurs, and allow Cuba access to international financial institutions.
Greater economic inclusion leads to increased political freedom. This is true of the Soviet Union’s collapse following perestroika and in the slow political reforms underway in China. The United States can help Cuba down this path or continue wasting dollars enforcing the embargo (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion annually).
• Second, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that an intelligence community review in 1998 concluded that “Cuba does not pose a threat to U.S. national security, which implies that Cuba no longer sponsors terrorism.” After 9/11, Cuba “signed all twelve U.N.-sanctioned international antiterrorism treaties.” Currently, as a neutral ground for negotiation, Cuba is essential to Colombia’s peace efforts with the FARC. Placing Cuba on the state sponsor of terror list is irrational and restricts the benefits of deepening commercial ties.
• Lastly, the administration can develop an agenda for cooperation on energy, counternarcotics and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on which cooperation is currently on a case-by-case basis. The State Department reports that in 2012 “Cuba maintained a significant level of cooperation with U.S. counternarcotics efforts,” resulting in multiple at-sea interdictions. Formalization of cooperation in these areas will increase regional security and help break down barriers between the two countries.
The United States imposed the embargo on Cuba in 1960, codified it into law in 1992 with the Cuban Democracy Act, and strengthened it in 1996 with the Helms–Burton Act. At each stage, the U.S. government reinforced that the goal of the policy was regime change and predicted it would happen quickly given the new sanctions.
Yet, it’s been more than five decades since Fidel Castro took power. The United States has gone through 11 presidents while, in Cuba, the Communists are still in power. Fidel advises behind the scenes while Raúl makes modest reforms and plans his succession.
José Martí once observed that “like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them.” It’s time to speed the rolling stones of Cuba policy!
U.S. Army Major Agustin E. Dominguez is a Latin America Foreign Area Officer. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect an official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.