Remarks at the World Policy Institute Forum on U.S. Policy Toward Cuba; The New School for Social Research, New York
[These remarks refer to a Cuba policy task force organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. The task force report is at www.foreignrelations.org.]
I am pleased to speak on this panel with two fellow members of the Council on Foreign Relations Cuba task force, Walter Mead and Susan Kaufman Purcell. While I readily signed the task force’s final report, I favor a more fundamental reassessment of Cuba policy, and I would like to explain why.
Ever since relations with Cuba soured four decades ago, American policy has aimed to isolate Cuba diplomatically and economically. This has been attempted mainly through a trade embargo and a ban on travel by nearly all U.S. citizens to Cuba.
That policy was right during the Cold War, but it cries out for a thorough revision today, now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, Cuba’s security threat is gone with it, global politics is transformed, and Cuba has begun to implement limited but significant market-based economic reforms.
A revision of Cuba policy need not discard every element of current policy, but new conditions surely dictate that we examine all the basic assumptions.
When I do that, I reach the conclusion that our policy today, by limiting the flow of people, ideas, and commerce between the United States and Cuba, acts mainly as an embargo on U.S. influence in Cuba. It is counterproductive at its core because it violates the most basic principles of political action.
First, like a chess player that looks only at his own pieces, American policy fails to assess political reality in Cuba. Whether we like it or not, the Cuban government is strong. Its political opposition is weak, or it is located outside of Cuba. Neither history nor current conditions in Cuba give any basis to expect that the embargo will lead to economic deprivation or that this would in turn cause political change. Economic hardship has not led to political crisis in Cuba, not even in 1992 and 1993, when fuel supplies nearly went dry, traffic was scarce, and blackouts were frequent.
Second, American policy disregards opinions that should carry special weight. Around the world, it enjoys the support of not a single democratic nation. In Cuba, it is opposed by the people we say we want to help: Elizardo Sanchez, Oswaldo Paya, Vladimiro Roca, Marta Beatriz Roque, the Democratic Socialist Current, other political opposition figures, and the Catholic Church of Cuba. “There is nothing positive in isolating a people,” a Havana parish priest told me.
Third, our policy sends a deeply hostile message to the Cuban people. Look at the message written in U.S. law: It says that if Cubans want trade from America, they can forget it. If they want investment, they can look elsewhere; moreover we will use extraordinary legal means to discourage investment from third countries. To discourage normal commerce with Cuba now, U.S. law provides that any ship that calls on a Cuban port even if it delivers only rice and penicillin is so repugnant that it is barred from American ports for six months. Lest there’s any misunderstanding, American law says that the United States wants the United Nations to impose a global ban on all trade on Cuba.
The message is as clear as a bell: America wants more than just to refrain from trade; the policy is designed to make Cuba’s economy collapse. It’s no surprise that the Cuba’s bishops said in a pastoral letter that it is a “cruel” policy that attempts to “destabilize the government by using hunger and want to pressure civic society to revolt.” In the Administration and Congress, many describe current policy as one that supports peaceful change but as long as these harsher elements remain in current law, they shape perceptions in Cuba.
Fourth, American policy fails to show any flexibility of approach. The trade embargo is merely a tool, but it seems to have turned into an article of faith. Keeping or dropping the embargo is a false choice there is a wide range of options to modify the embargo to allow any degree of commerce we want. To modify the embargo would not take away our ability to express our fundamental differences with Cuba’s system. The trade embargo and the travel ban should be at the center of our discussion of future US policy.
Fifth, perhaps most critically, our policy fails to relate ends and means. Much of the rhetoric indicates goals such as bringing down the Cuban government goals suited to military action, not to an embargo that after many years is not even eroding that government’s political strength. (Here I refer to the widely stated expectation that with the Soviet subsidy gone, the embargo itself would bring down Cuba’s government; then that the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 would do so, and then that the Helms-Burton law of 1996 would do it.) With ends and means out of line, a cycle of high expectations and repeated disappointment is guaranteed.
What should be done’ I’m not going to rewrite U.S. policy here, but I would like to point out four positive steps.
First, I suggest maintaining a core element of longstanding policy. As long as the United States has political differences with Cuba and its human rights record, we should state those differences, forcefully, in every available forum. But those fundamental differences should not block initiatives that benefit our interests or that have nothing to do with politics. In this regard, I applaud the Administration for allowing the Baltimore Orioles exhibition baseball games to proceed.
It’s equally urgent that we get our ends and means in alignment. It’s time to recognize that a unilateral embargo will not overthrow the Cuban government. That is a goal that could only be accomplished through a military action that has no justification.
What makes sense for the United States to do, given our national interests and current conditions in Cuba, is to seek opportunities to promote our values and influence, and where possible, to provide humanitarian benefits to Cuban citizens. These are attainable goals that we should pursue with optimism and confidence.
This begins by recognizing that despite our differences, Cuba today is far from a barren Stalinist landscape. Religious belief is reviving. On farms, in farmers’ markets, in small businesses, in joint ventures with foreign companies, even in parts of the state sector, elements of capitalism are appearing. As a result, the Cubans participating in these changes are earning more, providing better for their families, and learning to work in a more market- based economy. Cuba’s next generation knows it must govern and seek ways to prosper in a world radically different from the one that sustained the first three decades of Cuban socialism.
How does the United States exert influence in this environment’ Part of the answer lies in a time-honored, nonpartisan, eminently American idea: to encourage the broadest possible contact between our societies. Public diplomacy has long been a cornerstone of America’s approach to the world, but for forty years it has been largely absent from Cuba policy.
By “public diplomacy” I don’t mean speeches or public relations. I mean the concept that America has a unique source of strength in foreign affairs that goes beyond military or diplomatic actions. That is the strength of the American idea transmitted by Americans interacting freely with people overseas. Artists, scholars, and travelers acting freely, not as part of any government effort, exercise a kind of diplomacy and have influence because these citizens represent America in all its aspects.
Today, there seems to be a growing realization that barriers to contact between Cubans and Americans are counterproductive. The Administration may soon remove red tape and expand some travel categories, and the task force called for increasing “targeted” travel. I prefer a simpler solution: allowing all Americans to travel freely to Cuba, just as Cuban- Americans can today. No American should be required to obtain a license to travel there. In time we will discover that Americans acting freely will do more to build contacts with Cuban society than any conceivable program managed and licensed by the U.S. government.
So step two is ending the travel ban.
Step three is to end all restrictions on the sale of food and medicine. These restrictions bring no perceptible foreign policy benefit for the U.S., but they do lead people in Cuba and around the world to the reasonable conclusion that Washington’s goal is to promote economic hardship in Cuba. It is true, but irrelevant to this political perception, that Cuba could prosper with more liberal economic policies.
Lastly, for step four I would recommend an experiment in economic engagement. I would propose that the U.S. allow free trade and investment in a single sector such as agriculture, housing, or telecommunications. I respect the view of some that the embargo is an anachronism that should be dropped rather than modified gradually. I also respect those that point out the plethora of restrictions on free economic activity in Cuba. The task force recommended, for example, that the U.S. continue to ban investment until some key aspects of Cuban policy change. I am guided by the fact that in hundreds of interviews with Cubans of diverse opinions, I have never met a Cuban in Cuba who wants the U.S. or the world in general to withhold trade or investment, or who hopes for political change brought about by economic hardship. Cubans welcome American visitors, and they welcome the idea of renewed relations with the U.S. It will come as no surprise to those who have seen Cuban-Americans practicing capitalism, that Cubans seem eager to experience more capitalism in their own country.
We face a choice: Americans can stay on the sidelines until conditions in Cuba are to our liking, or we can engage now. Take one example: Cuba’s system for regulating foreign investment requires that most hiring be done through state employment agencies, and it effectively taxes over ninety percent of the investors’ wage payments, which are made in dollars.
Yet in my research I found a few cases where foreign investors succeeded in recruiting employees directly. And from one end of the island to the other, I found that foreign investors, after making the wage payments to the employment agencies, also make significant supplemental dollar payments directly to workers. This requires some boldness, because these payments are not always legal. The result is that Cubans working in joint ventures have a higher standard of living, they cite improvements in working conditions, and they acquire experience working in private enterprises.
I would argue that if American corporations were to operate in Cuba, they would follow this same pattern, they would treat Cuban workers well, and their jobs would be in demand. The way to allow this to occur is to create a true opening that allows American companies to set their own course, to determine the kinds of business they want to do, and to work through the bureaucratic obstacles they will undoubtedly encounter. This is preferable to the narrow opening that the Administration seems prepared to propose in the agriculture sector, where sales of certain inputs may be permitted under a restrictive U.S. government licensing procedure.
There is a great historical irony in the making. While calling for Cuba to allow capitalism, the United States downplays the significance of economic reforms and applies punitive sanctions against Canadian and European investors. When economic relations are re- established, whether that is a year or a decade from now, Americans will see that Cuban reformers and foreign investors are among those who helped prepare Cuba’s economy and workforce for the market-based future that Washington long advocated.
It is out of character for America to refuse a pragmatic reassessment of a policy born in conditions that no longer exist; to set aside the views of democratic friends and allies; to allow our perception of an island neighbor to be defined by one man; to treat today’s generation of Cubans as if they created the grievances that drove our nations apart four decades ago; to attempt to bring our neighbor into this hemisphere’s embrace by isolating it.
The more Americans scrutinize Cuba policy in discussions such as this one, the sooner we will arrive at a policy that stands by our values, is truer to our character, and achieves greater results for the people of both nations.
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