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Many democracy activists in Cuba would say that the Cuban government is responsible for the continuation of an ossified political and economic system on the island that restricts decision-making authority to a small elite. And they would be right. The strong the prison sentences that the Diaz-Canel regime imposed on July 11 protesters are just the latest example of a regime that fears its own people. But there is a lot of blame out there, and the US government, including the Biden administration, shares responsibility for the betrayal of the Cuban people. My time as a US diplomat in Cuba during Obama’s thaw in 2015-17 showed me what it was possible to achieve when diplomacy had a chance to work. The Biden administration’s May 16 announcement of limited humanitarian exceptions to Cuba’s draconian policy is welcome, but it doesn’t go far enough. It is time to renew full constructive engagement, including individual trips to the US, and stop punishing the Cuban people for the sins of an elite they have no control over.
US policy toward Cuba has long been governed by domestic considerations, especially after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The context of the Cold War and the understandable bitterness of exile fostered a policy of regime change that included efforts to overthrow the regime by strength in Bay of Pigsthrough a campaign kill Fidel Castro himself, to schemes to incite the Cuban people to rise up against him. The main vehicle for this last hope has been the US economic embargo on the island and its numerous and complex related financial tentacles that combine to discourage most countries from doing business with Cuba. In addition to the Cuban economy not producing enough income to pay for the goods, traders need to establish careful systems of legal compliance to defend against potential US sanctions. The volume of business related to Cuba is not worth it.
The apparent US theory of change is that unilateral economic sanctions will cause so much misery that the Cuban people will realize that their fate hinges on a democratic uprising. This perspective is flawed in several ways. First, he fails the experience roll. This approach did not work for more than two generations. In almost any context in the public or private sectors, a policy that so persistently failed to produce the intended result would have been altered long ago, and its supporters questioned about its continued adherence to a lost cause. Second, the theory of change is morally obtuse and has become even more so with the passage of time. US policymakers are prepared to inflict widespread economic suffering on millions of people to achieve a goal they know is elusive. And third, the policy is false on the face of it. The United States knows it has failed and will continue to fail, but its supporters persist in obscuring the real reason for its continuation – a White House decision to outsource US policy on Cuba (and Venezuela and Nicaragua) to a small group of exile sympathizers. hard-line Cuban in South Florida.
My experience in Cuba as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Havana from 2015 to 2017, the last part of which was as business load, demonstrates that a more constructive US policy benefits both countries, especially the Cuban people. We negotiated 22 diplomatic agreements with the Cuban government during the Obama administration that covered a wide range of issues associated with normal bilateral relations, including issues of direct national security concern to the United States, such as migration, maritime search and rescue, public health, oil spills and territorial boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico. These agreements will provide the basis for a future normalized bilateral relationship. These sessions were never easy, and Cuban diplomats were always well prepared and committed to defending their positions. However, they were concluded in a manner acceptable to both countries, as diplomatic agreements can be if both sides are prepared to forgo total victory and instead pursue acceptable incremental progress.
The agreements we negotiated did not in themselves improve the lives of the Cuban people, of course, but the related US policies did, especially the liberalization of remittances that US citizens could send to Cubans on the island and the expansion of easy access legal travel. . The central benefits of this people-to-people exchange were allowing US citizens the opportunity to visit a neighbor that had been closed to them for decades and allowing the Cuban people to earn money from the expansion of these trips. Both aspects worked extremely well. More than a million Americans visited Cuba in 2017, for example, many staying in private accommodations and eating at private-sector restaurants. The Cuban middle class has grown visibly. Equally valuable, independent Cuban civil society also emerged, working on cultural and political issues such as LGBT rights and artistic freedom. The formal “dissident community” was divided in its assessment of changes in Obama’s policy. Some approved, on the grounds that hard-line policies had only entrenched the repressive regime and that new approaches were worth trying. Others opposed the changes, arguing that the Cuban government would only pocket additional income from travelers and tighten its grip on power.
I saw firsthand how morale and hope blossomed in Cuba during 2016, perhaps culminating in President Obama’s visit in March. His live speech for the Cuban people respected its independent history, but also spoke of its agency – of the Cuban people themselves, and especially their young people, being the engines of history, in their own time and in their own way. The Cuban government’s reaction was swift and negative. They were taken aback by the warm reception Obama received from the Cuban people and the emotion his speech generated. A Cuban told me that in the future Cubans will mark the days as “before Obama’s speech” and “after Obama’s speech”, replacing the Cuban revolution as the Rubicon moment in Cuban history. Cuban authorities spoke negatively to the diplomatic corps about the statements and Fidel Castro himself appeared as the closing speaker at the 7th Party Congress a month later to condemn the speech and visit. Then the Cuban authorities began another repression in independent civil society, reflecting the same fear of losing political control that has animated the party elite for decades.
One element of US policy that the Cuban government misrepresented was Obama’s commitment to seeing the Cuban people make their own decisions, in their own way and in their own time. Cuban officials claimed it was just a regime change by another name. But it was real. Obama knew that the United States could not impose democracy on Cuba and that such an outcome would be tainted by its provenance. The only sustainable solution for governance in Cuba must come from solutions designed in Cuba itself, involving as many Cubans on the island as possible in decision-making. He felt that the results of that effort were for the Cubans to decide, not for the Americans to impose. And that may explain the real reason for the Cuban government’s concern. The 2015-16 period in Cuba was one in which Cuban expectations began to match their aspirations. These expectations did not necessarily include an early introduction of a representative system of government, or even an open discussion of different perspectives within the Communist Party, but they did see Cubans talk about the kinds of lives and opportunities they deserved.
We will never know what might have happened if Obama’s approach to Cuba had continued, but it’s not too late to make amends. The election of President Trump in November 2016 started the process of reversing US policy back to its Cold War-inspired hostility and, in fact, made it even harsher. The still unresolved”acoustic health incidents” halted any remaining diplomatic processes, and in September 2017, then-Secretary Tillerson took out most of the diplomats. Until then, bilateral relations were on life support anyway, where they remain.
Candidate Biden has done much of his intention reverse Trump’s changes, emphasizing the humanitarian value to the Cuban people of doing so, but did little to make it happen. To be fair, the Biden administration was unable to determine which has led some diplomats to suffer from debilitating illnesses in Havana and may feel they cannot protect their diplomats from whatever may have caused it. Limited consular services seem to be resuming in Havana, and on May 16 the government announced limited easing of some restrictive policies for humanitarian reasons. However, they don’t go far enough. Florida’s 2020 election result was disappointing for Democrats and Biden’s team appears to have concluded that being noticed as it doesn’t last long enough in Cuba was the main reason.
What should be done? First, the Biden administration must reopen the embassy in Havana with full force. American diplomats have volunteered to serve in Havana, despite concerns about the health risks. I know this because my entire team sent a letter to the State Department on the eve of Secretary Tillerson’s decision to end our travels and asked to stay. This would allow the United States to process all pending refugee petitions and regular travel visas, important humanitarian measures that help promote family unification. Second, the United States must restore the liberalized travel rules that allowed so many Americans to visit Cuba and boost the Cuban private sector. This support for Cuban families is the least the United States should do after decades of actively seeking to make their lives miserable. Third, the Biden administration should again liberalize all financial transfers from US citizens, not just Cuban-Americans, to Cuban families. These three policy changes, in the context of existing rules requiring Americans to use private hotels and restaurants, would be administratively easy to make and would require only a handful of political courage. Arguments that such an approach would “reward the regime” are unconvincing and merely repeat the tired perspective of a policy that has failed for two generations.
By themselves, such changes will not produce Florida’s fantasy regime change. But they will help to lighten the indelible stain on America’s diplomatic reputation that two generations of morally bankrupt policies have produced. Most importantly, they will treat the Cuban people with the respect they deserve. The United States is not responsible for the mess Cuban leaders have made on the island, but it is responsible for perpetuating it – and them. The US approach entrenches the regime and regularly undermines US regional diplomacy by alienating partners, as seen most recently by threats from leaders in Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia and CARICOM to boycott the Summit of the Americas unless Cuba be invited. The Cuban people are no different from most Americans in their aspirations and willingness to work hard to achieve them. It is time for the Biden administration to put aside its timidity towards Cuba.
Scott Hamilton is a former senior US foreign service officer who retired in April 2022 after nearly 30 years of service. His most recent assignments were Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in Cuba and Director of Central American Affairs in Washington, DC. He also served in the US Mission to the OAS in Colombia and Ecuador, among other assignments. He is a graduate of Oxford University, Harvard Law School and the National Defense University.