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

  • November 17, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    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.

  • November 16, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    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.

  • November 15, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    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.

  • November 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    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.

  • November 15, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    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.

  • November 15, 2013 at 10:34 am

    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.

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