New Report Cites Political and Foreign Policy Benefits of Changing the U.S. Approach to Cuba
A report released today calls for President-elect Barack Obama and Congress to signal a new direction in the foreign policy of the United States by changing policy towards Cuba. “The Case for a New Cuba Policy ,” written by Jake Colvin, Vice President of Global Affairs for the National Foreign Trade Council and a Fellow with the New Ideas Fund, notes that, “While issues such as the global economic crisis and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will take months, years, or even decades to resolve, President-elect Obama has the opportunity to send an immediate signal of change to the world through a new approach to Cuba policy.”
The report highlights a national security benefit from changing policy, observing that the Bush administration has increased the burden on key government agencies responsible for keeping the United States safe from terrorism through its directives related to the Cuba sanctions program. Reversing those policies, and establishing risk-based priorities for allocating scarce resources, would allow the U.S. government to refocus its attention on the most serious threats to national security.
Colvin also suggests there is a changing political landscape that makes a different approach to Cuba “an increasingly smart political strategy,” given the attitudes of new Cuban American voters as well as the growing number of non-Cuban Hispanic voters in Florida.
“This paper provides a road map for the Obama Administration… more about Case for a New Cuba Policy
The Case for a New Cuba Policy
Why diplomatic and humanitarian engagement would be good politics and great foreign policy
Now that Barack Obama has been elected to be the next president of the United States, the world will be waiting for the change that he has promised. While issues such as the global economic crisis and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will take months, years, or even decades to resolve, President-elect Obama has the opportunity to send an immediate signal of change to the world through a new approach to Cuba policy.
For the first time, Florida politics allow—and even encourage—the incoming administration to rethink the embargo. Cuban Americans increasingly believe that the best way to support human rights in Cuba is to have more contact with family and friends and to engage directly with the Cuban government. Cuban Americans also care more about politicians’ positions on the economic crisis and healthcare than on Fidel Castro. “There is a generational and economic shift,” says Joe Garcia, who ran a competitive race this year against Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban American congressman who supports current policy. While Garcia lost in his bid to unseat Diaz-Balart, he points to the U.S. economic crisis and anger over the restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans as factors which are increasingly influencing voters in South Florida.
Shifting demographics among the broader Hispanic population in Florida also favor a new approach to Cuba. Florida is younger, more diverse, and more progressive than it was just a few years ago, as an influx of immigrants from Central and South America have changed the voter profile. Statewide, non-Cuban Hispanics now outnumber Cuban Americans. Non-Cuban Hispanics do not necessarily view U.S. Cuba policy as positive and would prefer to see Cuban immigrants subject to the same rules that apply to them.
Beyond the domestic political benefit of acknowledging a changing Cuban American community, a new approach to Cuba would send an important signal to the world. It would be relatively easy to demonstrate immediate change through a simple Federal Register notice and a new diplomatic approach. Even small changes in policy and rhetoric would send a strong message to U.S. allies, particularly in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, who will be looking for early signs from the next administration. “The next administration needs to have an early win,” says former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Peter Romero.
Romero, who was a key player in the Clinton administration’s second-term efforts to increase people-to-people exchanges, adds, “We’ve been on a losing streak for so long, something that breaks the paradigm and shows bold strokes would have an enormous impact. I think you can do that with Cuba.” It is also important to adjust the Cuba embargo to reflect post-9/11 priorities. Today the U.S. government focuses attention and resources on the Cuba embargo at the expense of more urgent pursuits such as halting flows of money to al Qaeda and keeping terrorists and criminals out of the United States. “The Cuba program puts extraordinary demands on government resources,” observes former Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) Deputy General Counsel Serena Moe.
Enforcing nuisance sanctions on Cuba diverts resources from high-risk targets such as the 9/11 terrorists who entered the United States through Miami International Airport to violators such as Cuban Americans who return from visiting relatives in Cuba with a box of cigars. Choosing to focus on Cohibas and rum rather than criminals and potential terrorists is a dangerous and unacceptable trade off in a post-9/11 world.
Change (whether unilateral action, diplomatic initiatives towards Cuba or U.S. allies, or multilateral initiatives) can and should be led by the White House. In spite of the layers of U.S. laws and regulations on Cuba, and the mistaken belief among many that meaningful policy changes require an act of Congress, the president retains wide discretion to modify the rules, as the Clinton and Bush administrations have demonstrated. Although an end to the entire embargo would likely require congressional action or a Cuban transition to a free and democratic government, the executive branch retains significant discretion to change policy through its licensing authority in the Cuba Assets Control Regulations. The idea that Congress has limited the president through legislation is largely a myth.
A new approach does not require an intensive top-to-bottom overhaul of U.S. policy on day one. The relationship is too complex and not urgent enough to commit the kind of time and energy that would be required for full and immediate normalization. But taking immediate action to reverse counterproductive Bush administration policies would send the message that change has arrived.
President-elect Obama could immediately:
1. Remove restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to travel and send financial support to family in Cuba.
2. Rescind the Bush administration’s counterproductive limits on people-to-people travel and trade.
3. Rely on general licenses for travel to Cuba and instruct the Treasury Department to redeploy resources internally to focus on the department’s urgent priorities of tracking terrorist financing and enforcing other sanctions programs.
4. Abolish the Office of Transition Coordinator and the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which obstruct direct diplomacy with Cuba and disrupt relations with U.S. allies. (“The hectoring and the finger wagging by the Cuba Coordinator just doesn’t work,” says former Canadian Ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle.4 “If you’re going to harangue somebody about the embargo, you ought to have some evidence as to the effectiveness of your policy.”)
These steps could be accomplished via a simple notice in the Federal Register. Initial measures could be easy to accomplish with the stroke of a pen, just as the Obama administration will likely seek to reverse the so-called “Mexico City Policy” of denying federal development funding to organizations that provide information on family planning. They would be welcomed by an international audience hungry for signs of a new approach to foreign policy and by a growing number of Cuban Americans and other Hispanics.
In the following months, as the administration approaches the next Summit of the Americas in April 2009, the president should follow up on these initial signals by constructively engaging the Cuban American community, Congress, U.S. allies, and the Cuban government in the following ways:
1. Change the tone. If the United States wishes to make a serious effort to engage Cuba and U.S. allies on issues such as human rights and economic development, it will have to change its rhetorical approach. The United States should raise important issues, including human rights, in a more constructive and direct way than has been tried in the past with Cuba.
2. Depoliticize the Cuba portfolio. The U.S. approach to Cuba has been too special, which has been reflected in the way policy making has been politicized within the bureaucracy. Depoliticizing the portfolio and returning Cuba to its normal place within the State Department bureaucracy would facilitate diplomacy.
3. Advance U.S. interests through principled diplomacy. The next president should engage Cuba diplomatically and place the burden on the Castro government to act constructively. Reestablishing regular, lower-level contacts, which have been curtailed by the Bush administration, would set the stage for higher-level discussions down the road.
4. Stop harassing U.S. allies. The next administration must stop harassing U.S. allies about their contacts with the Cuban government and attempt to find ways to work cooperatively to support human rights, civil society and economic development in Cuba. The United States should also eliminate the extraterritorial application of U.S. sanctions on Cuba and facilitate license exceptions where necessary.
5. End the travel ban. Complete repeal of travel restrictions would allow Americans to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba and would remove a burden from the Departments of Treasury and Homeland Security. The next president will have the support of moderate Cuban American groups, business interests, and other nongovernmental organizations to make a strong case for repeal.
6. Promote cultural exchanges and dialogue with the Cuban people.The next president should actively encourage people-to-people exchanges by streamlining the licensing process for Cuban musician, artist, athlete, and scholar access to the United States and by actively promoting dialogue and regular contact with the Cuban people. The U.S. government should also work with the private sector to encourage the establishment of a regular dialogue between Cuban economic officials and U.S. businesses. Facilitating sector-specific briefings, even in the face of continued trade restrictions, would establish important new channels of communication.
7. Prioritize sanctions administration and enforcement on the basis of national security risk. The next administration should call for a comprehensive reevaluation of the priority given to administering and enforcing all U.S. sanctions programs. This reevaluation, which could be done through a new quadrennial review at Homeland Security, should prioritize administration and enforcement of sanctions programs based on their relative importance to U.S. national security and the risk posed by lax enforcement. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Foreign Assets Control in particular should be given clear guidance to prioritize high risk threats.
8. Address broader impediments to normal relations. The Cuba Adjustment Act, Cuba’s place on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, property claims, trademark and other trade issues and the status of the Guantanamo Bay naval base will continue to be impediments to long term normalization of relations. These issues must be addressed either unilaterally or as part of a broader negotiation with Cuba. There is potential political benefit and a foreign policy opportunity for President-elect Obama and Congress to adjust the U.S. approach to Cuba. Immediately undertaking common-sense changes by lifting restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens, engaging in principled diplomacy with Cuba and U.S. allies, and changing the way in which the Cuba sanctions program is administered would be among the quickest and easiest ways to demonstrate to the world that change has come to U.S. foreign policy. These steps, combined with longer-term approaches aimed at dialogue and reconciliation with the Cuban people, would set the stage for normalization of relations. The Cuban American community no longer considers the embargo sacred. Neither should the next president.
You can read the full 42 page report here The Case for a New Cuba Policy
Jake Colvin is a fellow with the New Ideas Fund, an organization that seeks new approaches and paradigms for U.S. national security and foreign policy. He is also Vice President for Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a nonprofit trade association whose mission is to promote an open, rules-based international trading system.