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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

In the first six months of your presidency, you should launch an initiative to put to rest the half century of mutual enmity between the United States and Cuba. Doing so represents an opportunity of both major foreign policy reward and low domestic political risk. Mr. President, a bold initiative with Cuba, early in your presidency, will restore America's credibility and demonstrate your political courage with the Cuban people, in the hemisphere and across the globe. This memo will lay out why, provide several caveats to guide your considerations, and outline a series of concrete recommendations.


The United States has maintained an economic embargo, a broad travel ban and a host of punitive diplomatic measures against Cuba for nearly 50 years. Keeping such policies on the books any longer serves no foreign policy, national security or even substantial domestic political agenda: the status quo undermines all three. I am not the first person to argue that the time has come to open a different chapter with Cuba, nor are you the first president who will read a memo arguing as much. In fact, you are the 10th president of the United States to inherit a broken and utterly small-minded policy toward Cuba. And you are the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to take office when Fidel Castro was not at the helm on the island.

Unlike your predecessors, you campaigned on a program of making potentially significant changes in America's approach to the island. You spoke of talking directly with Raúl Castro, even while insisting on the importance of freeing political prisoners, bringing democracy and human rights in Cuba, and conducting appropriate advance work to ensure that talks address these agenda items. You called for an end to restrictions preventing Cuban Americans from visiting and sending remittances and other humanitarian assistance to their families on the island. And you talked about promoting people-to-people ties between all Americans and Cubans. You demonstrated the political courage to embrace these measures not only among liberal audiences, but in the state of Florida, where you saw that Cuban Americans are no longer single-issue or single-party voters. You recognized that, like many other traditional GOP supporters in 2008, Cuban Americans had lost faith with the party over bread-and-butter middle-class issues, the economic and financial meltdown, the war in Iraq and, notably, over Guantánamo. And you won the state of Florida without a political debt to hard-liners in the exile community, thus freeing the United States to craft a policy toward Cuba, rather than toward South Florida.

Today's international context also distinguishes you from your predecessors with respect to Cuba policy. In their own times and for their own reasons, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton each took notable steps to break with the ineffectual policies of sanctions and isolation. But their limited openings toward Cuba occurred at moments when America's credibility on the world stage and among our allies was overwhelmingly positive. The Guantánamo Bay Naval Base—under U.S. control since 1903—has long been a symbol of yanqui imperialism for Fidel's revolution and for others on the left in Latin America, but it was hardly the negative global symbol of American power gone wrong that it is today. Indeed, with America's international standing now severely diminished by the last eight years of unilateralism and arrogance, the moves you make toward rapprochement with Cuba will have resonance well beyond their impact on the Cuban people or their government.

In the Western Hemisphere, U.S. policy toward Cuba is universally derided as ineffectual and an obstacle to the emergence of a more open, pluralistic society on the island. An opening toward Cuba will be quietly encouraged and loudly applauded by major U.S. allies in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia and Mexico,each of which possesses extensive ties to the island and is paying close attention to developments in Cuba during this 50th anniversary year of the revolution. Havana's brashly ideological allies in the region—Bolivia, Nicaragua and, notably, Venezuela—will find a big argument in their brief against the United States (i.e. Goliath's penchant for picking on David) substantially undercut. The dozen or so small island countries of the Caribbean, meanwhile, most of which vote with Venezuela and Cuba at the Organization of American States and the United Nations will have cause for reconsidering this practice.

Beyond Latin America, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara remain cult heroes for many. Despite its human rights violations, Cuba's leadership has earned grudging respect among multiple generations of intellectuals and political leaders for its social gains and for its continued defiance of Washington. In Europe in particular, U.S. sanctions have earned the ire of many for casting their punitive reach on potential business and investment with Cuba. After a five-year freeze, and under the leadership of Spain's prime minister, José Luis Zapatero, the European Union has recently lifted economic sanctions and commenced a broad ranging dialogue on civil and political as well as social and cultural rights. A fresh approach to Cuba will send a signal that the era of American hubris in foreign affairs, at least in its own neck of the woods, may well be coming to an end. A significant dimension of the collapse of America's standing globally during the Bush years was that the United States was willing to use its power willy-nilly without a healthy degree of respect for the views of others, as the Constitution commends. For more than 15 years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted nearly unanimously in support of a Cuban resolution condemning the American embargo against it. Owning up to the failures of this policy and sending a clear signal of a new approach will gain ready plaudits from our allies, whose help we will need in confronting real, rather than manufactured and domestically driven, national security challenges.

For many of the same reasons, American public opinion is ready for a change as well, and a significant one at that. Nationally, polls consistently indicate that a majority of Americans believe they should be able to travel to and trade with Cuba and that Washington and Havana should reestablish diplomatic relations. Even among your toughest audience, the Cuban-American community, a consensus is emerging that current policy has failed and that neither the Cuban nor the U.S. government has any business getting in the way of individuals' desires to help family members on the island. Cuban-Americans also favor an end to travel restrictions for all Americans, not just for themselves. Such views have only become stronger in the wake of the devastating damage wrought upon the island by hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma last summer and fall. Regardless, Cuban Americans today make up only 7 percent of Florida's electorate in national elections. Even as you recognize the importance of Cuban-American family ties and perhaps, in the future, as part of a new wave of foreign investment there, they are not the only stakeholders in building a better modus vivendi with Cuba.


Before outlining the steps you can and should take to launch this initiative, I first want to caution you about two issues.

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