Obama on US Cuba Policy

Fernando Ravsberg*

Among the changes recognized by Obama is the increase of self employment which after five years is now near a half million Cubans.
Among the changes recognized by Obama is the increase of self employment which after five years is now near a half million Cubans.

HAVANA TIMES — The news is going around the world: US President Barack Obama has realized that changes are taking place in Cuba and, in response to this, he wishes to “update” the country’s policy towards Havana, which practically hasn’t changed since the 60s.

His advisors have finally realized that, in Cuba, political prisoners have been released, cultivable lands are being distributed among farmers, laws authorizing self-employment and small enterprises have been passed, a measure of access to the Internet and hotels has been made available and people are now entitled to buy houses and travel abroad.

Obama says that, now, they must “be creative” and “continue to update our policies,” a veritable change of course for a president who, during his electoral campaign, thought the economic embargo would be the magic lever that would allow the United States to move Cuba.

The basic elements of US strategy vis-a-vis Cuba were defined at the beginning of the 60s, in a State Department document that proposed spreading hunger, poverty and despair among Cubans so that these would rebel and overthrow the revolutionary leadership.

Obama has done the math and concluded that: “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power I was just born, so the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow be effective today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Obama could change the Cuban Adjustment Act in response to new laws passed in Havana, eliminating legal restrictions on international travel which had existed in Cuba for some fifty years. Photo: Raquel Perez
Obama could change the Cuban Adjustment Act in response to new laws passed in Havana, eliminating legal restrictions on international travel which had existed in Cuba for some fifty years.

In fact, the strategy wasn’t even very effective when first implemented. On the contrary, the United States’ aggressiveness transformed Fidel Castro into the defender of Cuba’s national sovereignty and helped him unite the vast majority of Cubans under that banner.

It took ten administrations applying this policy and obtaining exactly the same results for a US president to openly recognize that the strategy has become obsolete and must be modified if one wishes to have any degree of success.

At any rate, former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray stresses that it is important for Obama to “publicly declare that changes are happening in Cuba,” because this “contradicts the statements of the extreme right and of dissidents like Guillermo Fariñas and Berta Soler, who claim that nothing is really changing in Cuba.”

What’s truly curious is that the White House and Cuban government are using the same expressions. Neither uses the word “change”, they prefer to say they are “updating” their policies or models, in order not to discredit what they have done so far.

No one can know for sure whether the president’s statements will have any real consequences for bilateral relations between the countries or whether they are part of a rhetoric of goodwill without practical results, as was the case with Obama’s promise of shutting down the United States’ Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba’s easternmost province.

Whatever the case may be, the message prompted concerns among Cuban dissidents, who scrambled to ask the president not to be excluded from potential negotiations with the Cuban government. The fact of the matter is that Americans tend to go their way, and Cubans still remember how they once negotiated the island’s independence without their participation.

For now, those Cubans who can are rushing to obtain US residency, for it is rumored that, Obama’s political “updating” will include changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act, in response to Havana’s migratory reforms.

The Cuban State is handing out cultivable lands to farmers free of charge.
The Cuban State is handing out cultivable lands to farmers free of charge.

The situation, in which political asylum was granted to hundreds of thousands of people who later spent their vacation in the country that allegedly persecuted them, was scandalous enough, and now, to top things off, “exiles” can retain their Cuban residency, while still enjoying US residence rights.

Cuba’s laxer migratory legislation and the other reforms implemented by Raul Castro is dealing Washington’s Cuba policy some heavy blows. Both countries’ policies were a bit archaic, but it seems Havana got ahead of Washington in the “updating” process.

This is the reason analysts at the Cuba Study Group in Washington are advising Obama to “take bolder steps that break isolation, empower Cuba’s growing entrepreneurial class, and do away with counterproductive sanctions and designations that only represent obstacles to greater change on the island.”

A Cuban-American who met with Obama in Miami told me the president wants to make a change in the United States’ policy towards Cuba the legacy of his term in office, by approving measures such as the one that authorizes US citizens to travel to the island.

The president’s message, however, is encrypted and difficult to decipher. He meets with the most hardline anti-Castro circles and proclaims the need for a change in US policy towards Cuba, but is careful to avoid mentioning what elements of this policy he seeks to change.

In a way, while in Miami Obama said what everyone wanted to hear, and the ambiguity of his statements allowed him to collect money from both camps. At the close of his address, however, he acknowledged before his audience that “sometimes, politics seems dirty and ugly.”
(*) An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.

15 thoughts on “Obama on US Cuba Policy

  • President Obama is better known for talking boldly than for acting boldly. Not much of a second term legacy building. The man who opened “Havana” must be tempting, but it would be out of character.

  • Do you know Machado Ventura’s history with the revolution? Do you know his reputation among regular Cubans? Let’s just say he is one of the ‘historicos’ who would be wise to have a home on Margarita Island in Venezuela waiting for him if there is anything less than a peaceful regime change.

  • I do both Granma and Holguin Provinces and my Cuban / Canadian children have five houses in Cuba that are fully paid for by me. Mchel & Angelica Robinson are directly relasted to the late Celia Sanchez and related by adoption to Dr. Machado Ventura the past First Vice President of Cuba.

  • Griffin: I certainly agree with you that US / Cuba relations are so far down the priority list that they will not be addressed head-on in the foreseeable future.

    However, it is notable the changes that Obama has effected simply using the power of the Presidency. See my comments here.

    I am easily hopping on a flight from Miami to Holguin next week so I can attend the quince for a good friend’s daughter in a tiny town in Holguin province. I sent down money for the pig last week. Such things would have been unthinkable just one President ago.

  • There is another interesting political trend in Florida. As a result of Obama’s success in Florida, Democratic registration is up 30%.This is largely fueled by an increase in the Dominican, Puerto Rican and even Mexican communities voter registration drives. Fueling this increase, in part, is the latent resentment in these other Latino communities that Cuban-Americans have been over-represented in elective politics in Florida. These communities, as well as other Latinos, have higher birth and immigration rates. They tend to register as Democrats in higher numbers. The short story here is that Democrat politicians are finding themselves less beholding to the Cuban-American agenda. What this means is that even as the Cuban-American community moderates its stance to a historically harsh US/Cuban policy, the Democratic party in Florida has strengthened in equal measure. Former Gov. Crist’ switch to the Democratic party is emblematic of this trend. It may just come to be that as Cuban=Americans become more liberal their political views in Florida, ergo national politics, their community becomes less influential politically.

  • Dr. Jones, while Cuban physicians fill a very valuable niche in providing medical services to the Third World, they are not professionally up-to-snuff to practice medicine in the US and would require years of additional training and licensing before being allowed to help Americans, especially our most vulnerable. Food and medicine sales to Cuba are already exempted from the US embargo. Ending the embargo would have negligible impact on American businesses selling to Cuba. Any additional food sales from US companies, given the nature of current Cuban business practices, would involve a few more well-connected American businesses. These businesses would hire as few new workers as possible to fill these new Cuban contracts in order to sell the worst food at the cheapest price. Economically, American business in general, has little to gain in the Cuban marketplace. Annual Cuban government spending, at $90B, of which $1.5B is food imports, is simply not enough to sway US policy-makers. Dr. Jones, this is not Nixon opening up China’s 1B citizens to US businesses, this is an island of 11 million poor people. Despite the current dysfunctional state of affairs in Congress, there is no doubt that the Tea Party, Reeps, Independents and Demos would come together to resist helping a communist nation governed by the inciendiary Castro dictatorship. You need to get out of your insulated south Florida cave and get a real sense of how AMERICANS think. You would be surprised how little people care about Cuba.

  • Early reports said Obama carried the Cuban-American vote in Florida, but subsequent polling showed he got about 47% to Romney taking 52%. That said, it was the largest percentage ever given to a Democratic candidate for president, so your point stands: the times are changing.

    However, if the Republicans have a Cuban-American on the ticket, such as Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, or perhaps non-Cuban Floridian Jeb Bush, the Cuban-American vote will swing heavily back to the GOP.

    Articles such as the one above make the common mistake of assuming that just because the embargo is a huge issue in Cuba, that it is an equally big issue in the US. It’s not. On a list of top political concerns among Americans, the Cuban embargo ranks about #283rd down the list.

    No matter what limited economic reforms the Cuban government enacts, there is absolutely no corresponding political pressure upon the US government to lift the embargo. None. It remains a non-issue.

  • You made 82 visits to Cuba in 20 years? That’s more than 4 trips per year. What kind of research are you doing? Have you published anything? Were you by chance in Havana during early January, 2012?

  • Obama carried the Cuban American vote in Florida, thus helping him carry the state of FL, in the 2012 election because of his relaxed relations with Cuba. Times have changed.

  • Obama is dissolving before our very eyes in America. His Democratic party is enraged at him over the health care issue. I doubt if he will relax relations with Cuba and thus write off the state of Florida for the Democrats in immediate future elections. Cuban Americans are a powerful political force despite their status as aging exiles. Obama is in trouble. He does not need more trouble.

  • The United States is engaged in an internal political warfare between the Democratic, Republican and the Tea Party, which have effectively blocked and tied up most legislation in Congress, as an unprecedented hate, divide and destroy message is spewed 24/7 across the country.

    Obamacare, emigration reform, gun control, crumbling infra structure, joblessness, failing school system an imploding middle east and worsening race relations, are critical issues that are stagnated and effectively turned the president into a lame duck.

    Cuba is not a problem for any United States President except for Florida 29 electoral votes, with which a rabid anti-Cuba gang in south Florida, have threatened and blackmailed the State, Congress, Senate and Executive. Cuba matters only in Miami, Tampa and Saint Augustine, or 15% of the population.

    While most Cubanologists are concerned with the Embargo being codified into law by the Helms-Burton Act, which would require 2/3 of a petrified Congress to reverse, the President has the power with a stroke of his pen, to remove all travel restrictions to Cuba.

    This simple act would allow at least one million US residents to visit Cuba and see the good, the bad and the ugly. Past experiences have proven that 90% of these visitors will uncover the lies and distortions that have been used to turn Cuba into the bogeyman, which they will share with friends and family upon their return.

    Can this Congress, which is dead in the water, ignore the pressure emanating from millions of its constituents, who recognize they have been lied to, cheated and used?

    Contrary to what is said in Miami, improved relations with Cuba will benefit both countries. Cuba will undoubtedly receive millions of dollars in tourist income and with an improved Cuban economy, the United States could sell, hundreds of millions of dollars in food, medicine and medical supplies, which can create, tens of thousands of jobs in an ailing economy.

    Finally, where else except in Cuba, can the United States have access to thousands of psychologists, psychiatrists,primary care physicians, neurologists and others, capable of providing critical mental health services, to tens of thousands of Spanish speaking veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Syndrome, before more of us fall in a hail of gunfire in schools, churches, malls or anywhere.

    Paradoxically, it is again Cuba as it happened in the 1970’s, where 40,000 thousands war torn children from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Mozambique and others found refuge, education and a career, that may also serve as refuge for thousands of our inner cities minority children, who are gunning down each other on the streets, homes or schools, and no one in the United States is capable of putting an end to this slaughter.

  • I see where Obama has made dramatic changes in US / Cuba relations. These require looking beyond the superficial as they have been designed not to have a direct confrontation with the anti-Cuban elements of the US political system. However their total impact may exceed those changes happening in the 48 years preceding his inauguration.

    Obama has greatly expanded visitation of US residents to Cuba by the expanded redefinition of family and permitting unlimited visits rather than once every 3 years. He has greatly relaxed the legal ability of US residents to visit Cuba legally for other than family visits and well as having OFAC discretely look the other way while Americans visit Cuba illegally. There were 570,000 Americans who visited Cuba legally in 2012 and an uncounted number who visited illegally without fear of prosecution.

    Most importantly, Obama has created a situation of unlimited remittances direct to the Cuban people. Cuba citizens received $5.1 Billion in remittances in 2012 with the lions share coming direct from US citizens. Compare that to the $2.2 Billion in total tourist revenues or the just under $1 Billion total salaries and wages of the 80% of the workforce employed, directly or indirectly, by the Cuban government. Or, compare that $5.1 Billion in remittances received directly by Cuban people plus everything those 570,000+ Americans spend while visiting Cuba to the $5 Billion the Cuban government receives from Venezuela for all the doctors and coaches. There effectively is no source for start up capital for all the new private business in Cuba other than remittances from US residents. One must conclude the US residents economic importance equals or exceeds that of Venezuela.

    You can look only at the surface and conclude nothing has changed since you still cannot legally buy a Cuban cigar in the US and that the embargo still exists in some form. But a view at the actual facts below the surface will cause one to conclude that the revised Obama policies have caused dramatic change in the Cuban economic environment and that the majority of changes in the Cuban government regulations have been driven by the Cuban government being made economically insignificant.

  • The U.S. is now behind the eight ball as China – Brazil – Saudi Arabia – Qatar now have major investments in the Cuban economy. Since 1993 I have visited Cuba , on research 82 times and can report more major new reforms will take place shortly. Gordon Robinson Port Alberni B.C. Canada . email :::
    [email protected]

  • Ravsberg has got it all wrong. Why does he assume that Obama’s remarks imply “relaxing” US sanctions against Cuba. On the contrary, at best Obama is more likely to reignite talks with the Castros at lower diplomatic levels while tightening the enforcement screws of the embargo. The failure of the embargo lies, in part, in its haphazard enforcement. Obama has seen recent ‘success’ in Iran and Syria using this negotiation tactic. Ravsberg’s article also implies that Obama has chosen to keep Guantanamo open contradicting his campaign promise to close the facility. He ignores the fact that Congress has refused to close the facility despite Obama’s best efforts to do so. Ravsberg fails to remember that unlike in Cuba, in a democracy, the President is not ‘all-powerful’. Furthermore, Ravsberg characterizes Raul’s tepid reforms as “dealing Washington’s Cuba policy some heavy blows.” If by heavy, he apparently mean ‘mosquito bites’. Again, he overestimates the importance of Cuban relations to Washington. The Democrats know that we have maxed out the political juice we can squeeze out of the Cuba-American community given party voter registrations. THERE IS NO POLITICAL REASON TO DO ANYTHING MORE for the Cuban-American community. Further unilateral concessions to the Castros will cost Democrats votes with independents who still hate communism. It is politically naïve to read anything into Obama’s remarks. He only said what he needed to say to raise the money he needed to raise. Period.

  • They may have released some political prisoners, but more have been arrested and are still in prison. Re-labelling political prisoners as criminals does not change the facts.

    Obama’s statement, “the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow be effective today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.” …does not make sense in relation to the US embargo. The policies which make no sense in the age of the internet, Google and world travel are those of the Cuban government which limits internet access, bans free speech and limits Cuban people from travelling abroad. Is he saying the embargo on Cuba makes no sense, but the embargo on Iran does?

    I would not hold out much hope that Obama will make any significant change to US-Cuba policy. He has a lot more on his plate right now: his signature domestic legislation, Obamacare is imploding, his Middle East foreign policy is going up in flames and the Iranians are hood-winking him over yet another round of negotiations while they continue their march to nuclear weapons. Obama is all but a lame duck now. His approval rate is tanking and he has no mandate to make any changes.

    And even if he did make any changes to the US policy with Cuba, nobody will notice with all the other mess around him.

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