Few things engender hypocrisy more broadly than U.S. policy on Cuba. It's embarrassingly inconsistent for Washington to maintain a trade embargo against Havana and to bar U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba when the U.S. gleefully does business with regimes like China, whose human-rights violations are more egregious than Cuba's. At the same time, it's curious at best that embargo foes like California Representative Barbara Lee, who led a congressional delegation to Havana last week that met with President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, rarely mention Cuba's jailed dissidents but will, as Lee has, blast China for "repression against the Tibetan people." (Read a brief history of Cuba-U.S. relations.)
Americans long ago came to the rational conclusion that we can trade with communist China and still criticize its rights record. But communist Cuba keeps us in a trance of irrational contradictions. That is, perhaps, until now. As Barack Obama packs for the Summit of the Americas this week in Trinidad, where he hopes to improve Washington's dismal relations south of the border, the U.S. President knows that Cuba policy will be the marquee topic. "Any solution to the U.S.'s problems in Latin America has to go through Havana," says Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Relations in Washington. Obama seems to acknowledge two conclusions staring at the U.S. from across the Florida Straits. The first is that the 47-year-old trade embargo, meant to dislodge the Castro regime, is a spectacular failure and should give way to commercial and diplomatic engagement with Cuba. The second is that Cuba still lacks freedom of expression and basic rights like opposition political parties. (What tourists can expect to see in Cuba.)
With that in mind, the Obama Administration on Monday lifted restrictions on Cuban-American family visits and remittances to family members in Cuba. It also announced measures to get broader cell-phone and television service to Cubans, which White House officials said would "open the flow of information" on the island. Either way, many hope Monday's moves will eventually lead to a dismantling of the trade embargo. But the moves should at least be followed this year by an end to the travel ban for the rest of the U.S. population that is, if Obama throws his support behind a new bill to end the ban, which may or may not have enough votes in Congress to pass. So far Obama has remained neutral on the legislation. However, there's a strong argument to be made for a presidential endorsement that could push it over the top, one that satisfies the need to engage Cuba but also, at least indirectly, will prod the Castro government toward greater democracy. (See pictures of Fidel Castro's years in power.)
Obama has long suggested that Cuban Americans are the "best ambassadors" to spread the democratic conversation in Cuba. But Birns and other Cuba-policy watchers consider the general travel ban a violation of U.S. citizens' rights to move freely, and they argue that continuing to make it illegal for non-Cubans to visit the island sends a half-baked message to the rest of Latin America, which views the Cuban embargo as a symbol of Washington's historically imperious approach to the region as a whole. "To have in place a Cuba travel policy that privileges just one small segment of the population," says Birns, "suggests you're still catering to politics in Miami," where the powerful Cuban exile lobby has long dictated the U.S.'s Cuba policy. Says Daniel Erikson, a senior analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and author of The Cuba Wars: "Rather than letting Obama look as though he's seizing the initiative on Cuba, it makes him look as if he's reacting to a political landscape set up by others." (See a young Cuban immigrant's artistic vision of his homeland.)
Backing the elimination of the general travel ban would signal a more robust interest in opening dialogue with Cuba. At the same time, it would just as decidedly put the ball in Havana's court. The Castros have insisted that they won't accept conditions for having the embargo lifted. Still, Fidel Castro wrote in an op-ed for Cuba's state-controlled media last week that Havana wants to negotiate "mutually advantageous" agreements with the U.S.; he even asked Lee's delegation what he and his brother could do to help Obama's efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. If the U.S. were to drop the Cuba travel ban, it would almost certainly shift hemispheric attention to what Cuba would then do to reciprocate, such as releasing imprisoned dissidents or permitting more free enterprise. Should the Castros do nothing, Obama could then at least say he made the first significant gesture, while still holding the trade embargo.
Not that the embargo gives Obama and the U.S. as much leverage as they might think. What Obama will find in Trinidad is that the embargo is "the single most unpopular policy in the hemisphere," says Erikson. And with or without democratic reform, Cuba is being brought back into the Latin American fold; last year it was invited into the Rio Group, one of the region's major organizations. Still, Erikson adds, most of Latin America has a positive impression of Obama, which will make it harder for the Castros to ignore or even rebuff his overtures. "They recognize that Obama is a genuinely new political phenomenon in the U.S.," says Erikson. "They know he's not as innately hostile to Cuba as [George W.] Bush was, and that means Cuba has to change its tune toward the U.S."
Experts like Erikson acknowledge that Obama has domestic political constraints, including the staunch opposition of Cuban-American pols like New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and Florida Senator Mel Martinez to the bill that would end the travel ban. But even they know momentum is building inside the Beltway, as prominent Senators like Indiana's Richard Lugar now argue that the Cuban embargo has been a failure. Obama didn't need the once indispensable Cuban-American vote to win Florida's critical electoral votes in last year's presidential race, and the Cuban-American Foundation a once hard-line exile group in Miami issued a white paper last week calling for engagement over isolation in Cuba policy.
More important, getting Cuba right could resonate for Obama well beyond the Florida Straits. "Obama has made it very clear to the world that he cares about how U.S. foreign policy is perceived around the globe," says Erikson. "Given that the embargo is one of the most unpopular policies the U.S. practices in the world, with the United Nations voting 185 to 3 last year to condemn it, he risks making his Administration look a lot like the Bush Administration if he hangs on to it." That may not be the conclusion Obama comes to this week, but it's worth considering as he packs for Trinidad.