The most damaging legacy of the Helms-Burton Act is not that it codified the bulk of U.S. sanctions into law, but that it codified the way we are supposed to think about solving the Cuban puzzle. It zapped our creativity and told us we must consider only one zero-sum, all-or-nothing course of action to foster change in Cuba — a course that never had a serious chance of succeeding.
Far worse, it codified our identity as victims. It denied us the freedom to take credit for the ground we’ve gained until the day the Castros are driven from power and there is a functional democracy in Cuba. It blinded us to the series of small victories that freedom advocates have won in Cuba over the past five years, and from recognizing the historic victory that the Cuban-American community won on Dec. 17:
Cuban Americans played a key role in the negotiations
Some claim that Cubans and Cuban Americans were left out of the negotiations between our two countries. While I can’t speak for what may have transpired in Havana, on the American side, that is not true. Over the better part of the last two years, Obama administration officials sought out the advice of prominent Cuban-American professional, civic and religious leaders on how to best chart a new course on Cuba policy. These talks often included members of distinguished organizations such as the Cuba Study Group, Roots of Hope, the Cuban American National Foundation and our own #CubaNow.
A priority for the White House was that any new measures had to advance the cause of human rights in Cuba. To that end, they started meeting with visiting Cuban opposition leaders, including Yoani Sánchez and Berta Soler, shortly after the Cuban government reformed its migratory policy in February 2013.
From the beginning it was clear that these officials understood something we all knew, but many refused to accept: Our policy wasn’t working. They were particularly receptive to calls for a new approach that advanced three objectives: empower the Cuban people so they could become the authors of their own destinies; place the right kind of pressure on the Cuban government to improve human-rights conditions; and promote the interests of the United States in the region.
Those Cuban Americans and visiting Cubans who shared creative and constructive ideas during these talks saw their recommendations reflected to varying degrees in the policy changes. Those who called for more of the same received less attention. Perhaps if Sens. Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez had spent less time defending a failed “moral” policy and more time working with the president to develop an effective moral policy, they might have held more sway over the outcome.
The Cuban government did not set the terms of the prisoner swap
Others are complaining that the United States allowed the Cuban regime to set the terms of the negotiations and received nothing in return. Again, this is wrong. For years the Cubans called for a three-for-one prisoner swap as the only option, and the United States repeatedly rejected it. This was largely because of pressure from the Cuban-American community. While the rest of the country seemed accepting of a three-for-one, our community wouldn’t settle. Some of us instead called for a more creative approach, one that went beyond the fates of Alan Gross and the Cuban Three — one that called for a larger bargain that would place us on the road to better relations. There are more than 50 years of unresolved conflicts, grievances and restrictions between our two nations. We said, let’s put some of those on the table.
In the end, the Cubans did not get the deal that they wanted. Instead, they agreed to release Gross, plus a CIA spy and 53 political prisoners. They also agreed to allow the International Red Cross and United Nations to monitor human rights inside the island and to re-establish diplomatic relations, something that must have rattled their hardliners as much as it did ours. Had it not been for the pressure exerted by Cuban Americans, it is quite possible that the United States might have opted for the easy swap to bring Gross home.
All eyes are now on Cuba
What Dec. 17 has taught us is that as long as we are willing to recognize when something has failed and remain open to exploring new ways of promoting democratic values in Cuba, Cuban Americans will always have a seat at the table.
It will be increasingly difficult for Havana to explain to the Cuban people — and to the rest of the world — why it must maintain or tighten its internal embargo now that the United States has opened up.
Our job as a community is to be flexible, creative and, most of all, strategic. We have to explore the wealth of new opportunities presented by this era of diplomatic relations and expanded travel, trade and telecommunications flows to help empower Cubans.
Every Cuban who is actively seeking to increase his or her autonomy — from artists and entrepreneurs, to religious groups and democracy advocates — deserves our help. As barriers continue to be lifted, let’s do more to contribute to their success.
In the process, we do not have to trust Cuban officials to get them to take steps in the direction we’d like to see. But we must trust that they, too, want a better future for their children and that they can recognize a good deal when they see one.
Our goal has been, and always will be, to facilitate peaceful changes that lead to a free and pluralistic Cuba. Let’s be smart about how we seize new opportunities to advance this goal. But by all means, let’s not give into despair and let’s shed the veil of victimhood, because small victory by small victory, the Cuban-American community is winning.
Ric Herrero is executive director of #CubaNow. He lives in Miami.