Which President told the Cubans “I wish you well”?

May 30, 2014

Finally, a President went to Cuba and uttered the words we’ve longed to hear.

“I wish you well.”

Only, it wasn’t President Obama.

This message to Cuba’s people came from the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue.

It came up,  as he wrapped up his visit to the island with an appearance at the University of Havana, and took questions from the press. When Daniel Trotta of Reuters asked Mr. Donohue, “Is Cuba a good investment?” he responded as follows:

“Cuba would be a better investment if it had issues like arbitration, and agreements that would protect intellectual property, and ways that we could resolve our differences. But I believe that Cuba, 91 miles from our shore, with the new and extraordinary port that’s being built here, has the potential to develop as a very good investment not only for Americans, U.S. citizens, but from people around the world, and I wish you well.”

To borrow a phrase from Vice President Biden, this is kind of a big deal.

In our reports on economic reform and gender equality, we discussed how Cuba’s own policies produced enviable achievements in critical areas like education and health but at unsustainable costs.  Since he became Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro has authorized greater liberties – from legalizing cell phones to overseas travel – while at the same time cutting the size of the state’s payrolls and opening employment opportunities for Cubans in the non-state sector.

In simple terms, Cuba’s project going forward is about addressing its economic crisis and bringing its assets and expenditures into a balance that future Cubans can live with.

This is at odds with the core objective of U.S. policy.  For more than 50 years, its goal has been to sink Cuba’s system by strangling Cuba’s economy.  The era of reform ushered in by President Castro has, at times, posed a paralyzing dilemma to President Obama.

On one hand, President Obama diverted from the orthodoxy in his first term by opening talks with Cuba on some bilateral issues, and by taking truly useful steps to reform U.S. policy; by giving unlimited travel rights to Cuban Americans and restoring some channels of people-to-people travel for Americans not of Cuban descent.

On the other, he has left the embargo mostly in place, stubbornly enforced sanctions against financial institutions to tie up Cuba’s capacity to engage in global commerce and trade, and distressingly allowed many excesses of our regime change program to remain in place.

Changing circumstances in Cuba have occasioned no fresh thoughts – and no Hamlet-like indecision – among the pro-sanctions hardliners.

Tim Padgett wrote perceptively this week about their support for policies that exact sacrifice and impose suffering on Cuba’s people.

“Incredibly, [the hardliners are] convinced that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba.

“[W]hy wouldn’t the Cuba-policy hardliners want to help accelerate that process? One answer is that it’s too mundane: It doesn’t fit their more biblical vision of a Cuban Spring in which the Castros are ousted by a fiery, exile-led uprising.”

How else to explain their vitriolic reaction to the U.S. Chamber’s visit?

“Sen. Marco Rubio, the Wall Street Journal reported, “blasted Mr. Donohue in a letter last week, calling the trip ‘misguided and fraught with peril of becoming a propaganda coup for the Castro regime.'” Capitol Hill Cubans taunted The Chamber with a note suggesting they invest in North Korea.  Senator Bob Menendez chastised Donohue, saying conditions in Cuba “hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”

Donohue was cheerfully immune to all of this. He said, “the Chamber of Commerce takes human rights concerns seriously,” as the AP reported, “calling it an issue that should be part of a ‘constructive dialogue’ between the U.S. and Cuba.”

He knows -in ways the hardliners simply cannot accept – that the political problems that divide the U.S. from Cuba will never be solved through diplomatic isolation but through negotiation and engagement.

In this sense, the voices criticizing Donohue, powerful as they are, represent the past – and neither the U.S. Chamber nor the 44 members of the foreign policy establishment who appealed for reforms in a letter to President Obama are going back.

Instead, our policy going forward will be defined not by pressing for the system’s failure, but by the principle that Cubans are better off – and U.S. national interest best secured – by respecting the desire of Cubans to succeed in a future of their own design.

It is up to President Obama to say the words, “I wish you well.”

But time is running out.  As Tom Donohue observed, “If [President Barack Obama] wants to get it done before the end of his term, he’s got two years, so he’ll have to get busy.”

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