Senator Obama, as Bill LeoGrande recounts, joined this new vision of Cuba policy with substantive proposals to restore Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and people-to-people contacts, and to resume engagement with Cuba’s government on issues that affected our common interests.
As a political candidate, Mr. Obama’s positions were a bet against the conventional wisdom that no one could be elected president without offering full-throated support for the embargo; as a leader for the nation’s foreign policy, he would stage a sharp departure from fifty years of foreign policy orthodoxy.
Converting these risky bets into round trip tickets to Cuba on Air Force One took courage and remarkable insight into what made this time the right time for a policy change of this magnitude.
So, how did the President pull this off?
First, he changed U.S. sanctions; not all at once, but by taking manageable bites, acting without much fanfare, taking mostly safe steps first. In 2009, he began by removing the Bush-era limits on the right of Cuban Americans to visit Cuba and provide financial support for their families.
In the beginning, it seemed counterintuitive to make the community most responsible for keeping the failed Cuba policy in place the most immediate beneficiaries of that policy’s liberalization. But, as visits by Cuban Americans to the island increased 8-fold under the new policy, giving the diaspora “skin in the game” also gave the President political license for more encompassing reforms. Two years later, he reopened non-tourist travel for all Americans, visits which have also grown exponentially, further increasing political support for additional reforms.
Second, he has managed Congress brilliantly. After repeatedly using his executive authority to create legal exceptions to the embargo – allowing increases in travel, trade, and commercial contacts with Cuba in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2016 – not a single reform has been reversed, defunded, or delayed by legislative actions, or by court decisions, as in the case of immigration.
Third, he never caved under controversy. During the slow, steady seven years of President Obama’s purposeful evolution of U.S. policy, there have been troubling and unwelcomed developments – the long prison term of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross prominent among them – of the kind that caused earlier presidents to drop Cuba from their reform agendas. Hardline Members of the U.S. Congress – Republicans and Democrats – even told the administration not to negotiate for Alan Gross’s release, because doing so would require the U.S. to make concessions.
Today, Alan Gross walks free because the President ignored their advice and protected his policy goals while finding a formula that got Mr. Gross, an imprisoned CIA agent, dozens of Cuban political prisoners, and the remaining members of the Cuban Five, back to their homes. Settling their cases was only part of the negotiation that led to the announcement on December 17, 2014 that diplomatic relations would be restored.
Fourth, while the president kept his eyes on the big picture, he also kept learning. In his first term, we were often assured by a member of his National Security Council staff that Cuba was not such a big deal to the other nations of Latin America.
In 2012, our strongest allies in the region, including from conservative governments like Colombia, told the President they would boycott the next Summit of the Americas unless Cuba could attend. In 2015, just four months after Presidents Obama and Castro spoke to their publics about the coming rapprochement, they could meet in person at the Summit in Panama to discuss how the new relationship was going after the U.S. dropped its objections and Cuba got its seat at the table. By the time he delivered his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama was challenging Congress to lift the embargo “if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere.”
Fifth, by tackling this problem as he did, the President created a virtuous cycle in public opinion as measured nationally and in the Cuban American community.
According to the Gallup poll, when he took office in 2009, Cuba was viewed unfavorably by 60% of Americans against just 29% who held favorable views. After seven years of reforms, increased travel, diplomacy, and visible presidential leadership, Cuba is now viewed favorably by 54% of Americans, with unfavorable views falling from 60% down to 40%.
Of perhaps greater significance, support within the diaspora for normalization, according to recent research published by Bendixen & Amandi, leapt from 44% in December 2014 to 56% in just one year. Last year’s Sunshine State Survey found that Floridians of all stripes support diplomatic relations with Cuba at exactly the same levels.
By spreading out the reforms over 7 years, while handling Congress and controversy so steadily, learning and making adjustments along the way, the President won public consent for Cuba policy reforms and a trip to Havana that few of us could have expected.
“Many Americans,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote in 2012, “would be skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.” In this season of cynicism, that skepticism is off the charts.
Perhaps this is what is most remarkable about the trip that President Obama is about to begin: In 2007, he made bold promises to reform Cuba policy as a candidate for our nation’s highest office, and then did the unexpected. He kept his word.
Anyone watching him step off of Air Force One on Sunday should remember that.
U.S. – Cuba Relations
Obama administration punches new holes in embargo on Cuba, Michael Weissenstein, AP
In a separate action, the U.S. government also removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient port security, a change that will clear the way for U.S. cruise ships and cargo vessels to travel back and forth, the Associated Press reported.
For more details on the new regulations, be sure to read the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) full announcement and its list of frequently asked questions about Cuba.
Cuba Eliminates Tax on U.S. Dollar, Havana Times
Obama letter among first direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years, Doug Stanglin,USA Today
Culture Gap Impedes U.S. Business Efforts for Trade With Cuba, Victoria Burnett,New York Times
Cuba changing, but only slowly, since Obama’s policy shift, Daniel Trotta, Reuters
Klobuchar, Emmer to join Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, Allison Sherry, Star Tribune
How to Go to Cuba Right Now, Victoria Burnett, New York Times
On Major Lazer In Havana, Isabel C. Albee, Huffington Post
We’re going to get into a discussion of President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba, so please give the following observations a chance to breathe.During most of the Cold War, the speed of the arms race and the development of new weapons easily exceeded the ability of our diplomats to negotiate agreements to control them, which in turn exceeded the capacity of our politics to debate and approve them.
In this time, we live with a less threatening but ever present and concerning danger; that is, the news travels so much faster, and comes at us much more plentifully, than our capacity to absorb it. This, in turn, exceeds the ability of our politics to debate and understand how what is being reported will affect the way we understand our world.
Journalism figured this out years before the social media revolution accelerated the news cycle to warp speed. They called it “instant analysis,” in which they interpreted reality the moment it began changing. Nowadays, reporters and analysts and opinion mongers tell us what things mean before they even happen, and long before we can feel a change or interpret it for ourselves.
In this brief, we’ve succumbed to this tendency, from time to time, so we’re not too terribly pure when we point out others doing the same thing. And here – yes, finally! – is how this tangent relates to the President’s visit to Havana which commences nine days from now.
As we have previously noted, the harshest critics of President Obama’s opening to Cuba have either already graded the trip a failure, or established a framework for trashing it ahead of time so they can quickly denounce it as it takes place.
Yes, we mean you, Investor’s Business Daily editorial board members, authors of “Obama’s Cuba Trip Showing Signs of Imploding.” Yes, of course, we name you, The Washington Post, for writing that the president’s visit “will be an ignoble failure if he does not have a meaningful encounter (defined how?) with the island’s most important human rights activists.” The Post knows well the maxim, those who set the terms of the debate win it, but theirs is not the only metric for judging the President’s trip.
For starters, there could be progress even before the President sets off. This week, there were reports that the administration will announce changes in travel, trade and banking rules on March 17- which strikes us as a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Once the President arrives, if Cubans respond positively to his presence on the island, as we expect they will, that will serve as a proxy referendum indicating Cuban public approval of President Castro’s decision to end his country’s position of hostility toward the U.S. government – and, that in itself, will be a big deal.
Then, there is the matter of what the two presidents plan to say and do about the state of bilateral relations going forward.
By the end of the trip, we fully expect that supporters of normalization will count the trip as a remarkable success, and those who hate the Obama opening will be unashamed in their criticism of the trip as an abject failure.
But, we think the impact of the trip should be measured by a different and better standard; namely, by January 2017 and February 2018 – once President Obama finishes his term and when President Castro has said he will step down – will their successors build on the rapprochement or act to reverse it?
This trip isn’t a one-off, it is part of a process; a process that has been unfolding since the Cold War, albeit gradually even glacially, but one that has picked up momentum since December 17, 2014 when the two leaders’ made public their decision to normalize our countries’ relations.
This process is far from complete. In the United States, the work of normalization will outlive President Obama’s term in office, and that is why his administration continues working to try and make the new policy irreversible. The process, we believe, is also taking place in Cuba, but is opaque for reasons we all understand.
In fact, both countries are playing a longer game than the instant analysts who interpret the news for us will ever be willing to play.
But, in ways we find very refreshing, teachable moments about U.S. policy are taking place that we think are very important. For example, the public is learning that:
- The U.S. embargo prohibits book publishers in our country from producing, distributing, and selling books and education materials in the Cuban market.
- The U.S. embargo imposes regulatory barriers on Cuba’s breakthrough medical treatments from reaching sick people in the United States who will die or live lesser lives without them.
- The U.S. embargo not only makes it illegal for Americans to visit the island as tourists, but also prevents U.S. hoteliers from building or operating hotels in Cuba to provide lodging for them.
- Under the U.S. embargo, it continues to be a goal of our foreign policy to overthrow the Cuban system.
As these and other facts about our policy are becoming more broadly known as a result of the President’s trip, public officials and others in the U.S. are working harder, and more visibly, to change them. Senator Amy Klobuchar is appealing to the administration to open up Cuba to investments by U.S. companies. MEDICC is offering policy ideas so that our people can lead safer, healthier lives, and publishers are arguing that “the U.S. trade embargo is harmful to book culture and runs counter to American ideals of free expression.”Most of all, the public is hearing in the plainest terms we’ve heard expressed a new point of view, a presidential challenge to the very philosophical or intellectual basis that have kept these harmful restrictions in place, which are so antithetical to how we see ourselves, far too long.
This is what deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this week. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term…Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What’s going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives.”
Should these ideas have the attention and space to enter the discourse, and if they’re given a chance to permeate the discourse over the next twelve to twenty-four months, we think the President’s trip will be judged by history to be a huge success, because the new policy can’t really become permanent until the debate about it is reframed.
We’ll just have wait and see.
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