By Peter Hakim
Peter Hakim is president emeritus and senior fellow of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy organization on Western Hemisphere affairs.
The opinions expressed are his own.
(Reuters) President Barack Obama has inverted US policy on Cuba. His Wednesday speech adopted the proposals of those who have spent a half-century arguing for a rethinking of Cuba policy. The president recognized Washington’s failure to achieve its goal of bringing political and economic openness to Cuba.
Rather than continue its quarantine, Washington is seeking more exchanges with the island nation, more trade, more communication, more cooperation. True, the embargo’s legal framework, including the Helms-Burton Act, remains a roadblock. But the president has ample authority to diminish and bypass its restrictions when that would clearly serve US interests.
Years before this major announcement, Obama had already lifted some restrictions, making it easier for Cubans living in the United States to send money and communicate with their families back home.
There will be powerful opponents to the president’s action, including all three Cuban-American US senators and a handful of Cuban-American House members, though it is unlikely they will have much success at mobilizing strong public opposition. Polls show that most Americans and a significant number of Cuban-Americans – especially second- and third-generation – support increasing normalization. The elected officials, however, may have sufficient influence to secure a congressional resolution condemning the president’s action — though this would have little actual impact.
The more Cuba demonstrates a genuine willingness to permit freedom of expression, end its harsh punishment of dissent, avoid overt violations of human rights and expand economic opportunities, the easier it will be for Obama — or any other US president — to continue a policy of normalization.
It is on this issue, however, that there is strong concern. Unlike Obama’s speech, which emphasized policy change, the remarks of Cuban President Raul Castro, who addressed his nation at the same time, focused more on what would remain unchanged in Cuba.
The Cubans did release US citizen Alan Gross. But they would have done that any time since his arrest — if the United States had agreed to turn over the Cuban prisoners it released yesterday. Havana also released a US intelligence asset who had been in jailed for roughly two decades, and freed about 50 jailed dissidents. There are no guarantees, however, that Cuba is ready to tolerate dissent or that new arrests will not follow. Castro offered no decisive policy shifts. Let’s hope they will be forthcoming.
So, what does the United States get out of the reversal of its decades-old policy?
Washington gains enhanced credibility — worldwide and, more important, in Latin America. Year after year, the US embargo on Cuba is vehemently denounced in the United Nations General Assembly, with the US position supported by only one or two votes.
Every country in the Western Hemisphere without exception has regularly urged Washington to lift its embargo. How believable could Washington’s commitment to multilateralism and regional partnership be when all 32 Latin Ameri-can and Caribbean nations objected to Cuba’s continuing exclusion from all Western Hemisphere leaders’ summit meetings?
Indeed, the decision by those leaders to invite Castro to next year’s hemispheric summit in Panama may have helped precipitate Obama’s policy turnaround.
The Obama administration’s decision may also bolster the world’s perception of Washington’s commitment to democracy. Political leaders and analysts across the globe have questioned the US support because they view the embargo as helping to sustain Cuba’s repressive regime.
Historians will someday note that Obama has taken steps to realign US policies on three issues that have vexed Latin America for many years — Cuba, the war on drugs and immigration.
Cuba, however, is seeking more material gains.
Maybe it is a coincidence that the US-Cuba agreement comes as Venezuela’s economy is reeling because of mismanagement and the steep decline in oil prices. The Cuban economy depends heavily on transfers from Venezuela — perhaps as much as $5 billion per year. The United States is probably the only possible substitute if the Venezuelan flow of capital were to stop.