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Memo to President Obama

Cigar Aficionado asked a leading Cuba expert to provide a road map for improving relations between the United States and its island neighbor
Julia Sweig
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009

(continued from page 1)

Democracy — The first is democracy. In short, do not pursue a bilateral opening with Cuba out of the belief or hope that doing so will rapidly bring liberal democracy to the island. There was little history of it before 1959—in the past 50 years, even less. In the early 1960s, the United States could have perhaps helped prevent some of the revolution's later radicalization by finding a modus vivendi with a young Fidel Castro, who was leery of Soviet power. A full-blown opening under Jimmy Carter, or even under George H. W. Bush when the Berlin Wall fell, might also have provided space for reformers within and outside government circles in Havana to make the case for greater economic and political liberalization. Indeed, had the first President Bush or even President Clinton during his first term issued executive orders to lift the trade and travel ban and restore diplomatic relations, Cuba might look quite different than it does today, perhaps with a recognizable social democratic order, a more open economy and ample state social services. By now, the United States might well have been able to count Cuba among the Latin American countries where the American commitment to democracy had played a constructive role.

At this stage, however, to think that an end to the embargo will speedily usher in an era of multiparty elections and market capitalism would be to set your administration up for failure. Cuba is today and will remain for some time a one-party state with a controlled press and significant impediments to individual freedoms. Thus, in your own mind, and publicly, it is best to frame any moves toward Cuba as matters of American national interest. At the same time, you should assert your belief that greater openness from the United States has the potential to lay the groundwork for a more open society on the island, where human rights and personal freedom can accompany Cuba's long-standing aspirations to social justice and national sovereignty. These values are shared by Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, but their implementation would still stop well short of raising the unrealistic expectation that a new U.S. approach can accelerate a full-scale democratic and pro-market transition. A historical note worth considering: when Henry Kissinger sent a few key deputies to secretly meet with Castro's envoys in 1975, he acted for geopolitical reasons first and foremost; he harbored no illusions about the domestic impact within Cuba of an opening with the United States. Nor did he demand preconditions before sending his emissaries to talk with Fidel's. Neither should you. But be assured that a less hostile policy will strengthen those within Cuba who are already making the case for greater freedoms and economic liberties at home, but who are thwarted by hard-liners whose positions are repeatedly reinforced by the reliable hostility of U.S. policies. In that sense, by simply taking steps to remove the United States as an excuse for domestic repression, and thereby helping reduce the siege mentality that has left its corrosive mark, you will contribute, over time, to change in Cuba.

Raúl Castro's First Year The second major issue or caveat relates to what is happening in Cuba today. In the aftermath of Fidel Castro's illness (announced during the summer of 2006) and Raúl Castro's election to the Cuban presidency in early 2008, it looked to most observers that Cuban authorities would carry out a number of potentially significant, though modest and modestly paced, economic reforms aimed at increasing the personal freedoms and material conditions of Cuban citizens. The words privatization or free market are seldom used in official Cuban discourse about changes in the economy. But by decentralizing and distributing land titles and otherwise promoting more free enterprise in the agricultural sector, lifting previous caps on wages, and announcing his intention of reducing the economic involvement and size of the state bureaucracy, Raúl has clearly signaled a new era is emerging. At times, he has sounded more like Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx, stressing the need for Cubans to improve their work ethic, efficiency and productivity. In one major speech, for example, he cautioned that "equality is not the same as egalitarianism," which itself could be "a form of exploitation of the good workers by those who are less productive and lazy," and warned Cubans not to expect the state to foot the bill indefinitely for an enormous range of goods and service. On balance, for the first half of 2008, Cuba exuded confidence internally and internationally, with a diversified trade and investment portfolio, the financial backing of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and new investments from Brazil, China, Spain and Russia.

By the summer of 2008, as the global food and fuel crisis hit home, Raúl began to moderate his tone, warning of impending belt tightening. Echoing his brother's historic allergy to the market, he stressed the need to protect the revolution's historical social achievements and maintain its firm resistance to empire (aka the United States). Raúl was—and still is—engaged in a balancing act, moving to gradually open the economy and permit often brutally honest public debate about economic and social issues, all while retaining political control and a major role for the state as the dominant actor in national life. All of this unfolded with Fidel Castro never far from the scene. Though physically out of the picture but clearly in better health, his regularly published commentaries on domestic, economic and international subjects appeared to both help Raúl manage public expectations but also dampen the pace of some economic openings for which many Cubans were hoping.

Then, at the end of August, and again in early September, hurricanes Gustav and Ike ripped across Cuba, inflicting an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion in damage. Much of Cuba's tobacco, citrus and coffee crops have been ruined, while poultry production and fishing fleets were severely damaged. Electrical grids in entire provinces were destroyed, as were more than 500,000 homes, displacing 2 million people and leaving 1 million jobless. The disasters have also encouraged speculation that the urgency of producing food especially could actually convince the government to accelerate private agricultural modes of production and other forms of market activity, all within the framework of socialism á la Cubana. Humanitarian and reconstruction assistance has come in, from the likes of Venezuela, Russia, China, Spain, Brazil and Mexico. But with the global financial crisis adding a climate of risk and uncertainty to Raúl's tentative steps toward modest reforms, not to mention the possibility that social pressures internally and to migrate will increase, the Cuba you will likely engage will be focused on recovery and reconstruction more, at first, than on reform and renovation. As always, Cuba will be wary of the United States and unwilling to frame any movement, domestic or bilateral, as anything approaching a concession to its historic nemesis. The stability of Cuba's succession from Fidel to Raúl has been smooth and remains so, a disincentive, some would argue, for you to spend your energy on a new approach to the island. Changing policy toward Cuba is strongly in the American national interest. It is the right thing to do. And there are other excellent reasons to put your energy into a new Cuba policy, as I have outlined above. But with Cuban officials warning of severe food shortages well into early 2009, the last thing you need is the kind of instability in Cuba that could prompt a mass refugee exodus. The time to talk is now.


The remaining portions of this memo lay out what the executive branch can do to fundamentally recast American policy toward Cuba. I also note where Congress will be key. The goal of the steps outlined below is to set into motion a process that, in the short to medium term, will bring about the end of the trade and travel embargo while establishing the initial items for an agenda of bilateral talks.

Travel — In the first hundred days of your presidency, you should issue an executive order revitalizing and liberalizing the 13 existing categories of licensed "purposeful" travel, which promote contact with the Cuban people for all Americans, following the path chartered by the Clinton administration in preparation for the 1998 papal visit to Cuba. At the same time, and consistent with your campaign pledges, you should repeal all restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances imposed since 2004 by the Bush administration. These two steps will not result in the complete elimination of the travel ban. Congress will need to finish that job with legislation eliminating all travel restrictions.

Trade — With your authority, you can also license the sale of goods and services that serve humanitarian purposes, especially as pertains to public health and all other materials that can assist in Cuba's recovery and reconstruction efforts in the wake of the recent hurricanes. Since the Cuban government is already the exclusive buyer of food under a 2000 law permitting such sales between our countries, legal precedent and practice exists for the government to also purchase other goods. You should allow Cuba to purchase non-agricultural goods on credit and make it easier to purchase American agricultural products using a more liberal interpretation of the statuatory credit restrictions, a move already urged by organizations. Congress can then eliminate the remaining anomolous credit restrictions on agricultural sales.

Talks — Much hoopla was made over the answer you gave to a campaign debate question about whether you would talk directly to the Cuban leadership. You were right on foreign policy grounds to say you would, and to later stipulate as a matter of principle that doing so in no way meant your administration would condone Cuba's often egregious human rights practices and authoritarian nature. On a number of occasions, Raúl Castro has indicated his willingness to talk on a range of issues: the precondition he has advanced is one of respect for Cuba's national sovereignty. Despite ongoing antipathy, public recriminations and a variety of American laws aimed at regime change, the United States and Cuba actually have a history of talking with each other almost continually over the last half century—whether through back channels, formal channels or third parties.

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