Changing U.S.-Cuba Policy

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Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty

Cuban workers harvest potatoes in San Antonio de las Vegas, Havana province, Cuba

Staff Trip Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations
United States Senate

The Gist:

After spending nearly half a century trying to bring democracy to steadfastly communist Cuba through crippling economic sanctions and travel restrictions, the U.S. may finally be ready to throw in the towel. In a draft report released Feb. 23rd, Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concludes that Washington's unilateral embargo on the Carribbean nation has been ineffective and should be reevaluated. Instead of steering Cuba towards democracy, the report argues that the embargo has harmed U.S interests in the region and provided the Cuban Government with a "convenient scapegoat" for its economic troubles. Lugar suggests that the recent changes in leadership in Washington and Havana provide a key opportunity to "reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion, and open hostility."

Highlight Reel:

1. On the failure of the embargo: "[The U.S. government ] justified the embargo policy as an incentive or inducement for negotiations with the Cuban government, the rationale being that the U.S. would lift the embargo, or parts of it, in response to reform on human rights and democracy. This narrow approach, however, has not furthered progress in human rights or democracy in Cuba and has come at the expense of other direct and regional strategic U.S. interests."

2. On why Raul Castro is an improvement over his brother Fidel: "Recent developments in Cuba may indicate that the government, while able and willing to exercise its machinery of repression, is showing some small signs of political moderation. According to the non-governmental Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), Cuba had 316 political prisoners when Raul Castro first took power on a provisional basis in July 2006... By early 2008 when Raul Castro formally assumed the Presidency, that number declined to 234."

3. On shy Cuba is no longer a threat: "With the end of the Cold War, [the government of Cuba] does not represent the security threat to the U.S. that it once did…While Cuba's alliance with Venezuela has intentions of influencing regional affairs, [it] has not been positioned to ably export its Revolution since the collapse of the Soviet Union forced an end to Cuba's financial support for Latin America's guerilla movements."

4. On taking the first steps toward reconciliation: "As an initial unilateral step, staff recommends fulfilling President Obama's Campaign promise to repeal all restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances before the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19, 2009. The timing of this gesture would signal an important change and would improve goodwill towards the United States from Latin American countries, as [the U.S.] seeks regional cooperation on a wide range of issues…Today it is clear that a reform of our policy would serve U.S. security and economic interests in managing migration effectively and combating the illegal drug trade, among other interests. By seizing the initiative at the beginning of a new U.S. Administration and at an important moment in Cuban history, [the U.S. government] would relinquish a conditional posture that has made any policy changes contingent on Havana, not Washington."

The Lowdown:

While the release of the report marks a striking change from the rhetoric that has dominated U.S. policy towards Cuba since the Cold War, it stops short of calling for an end to the trade and investment embargo, which President Obama has defended as an "inducement" for change in Cuba. Instead, the reform agenda outlined by the report focuses on easing restrictions on travel and the sale of agricultural goods, managing migration, and cooperating on drug-trafficking concerns, though the door will be left open for bolder policy changes. Since the embargo was written into law in 1992 and 1996, ending it would require an act of Congress, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to conduct a review of U.S. policy in the region and has suggested a willingness to "engage with Cuba on issues of mutual concern."

Verdict: Read