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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

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For example, after secret negotiations produced an immigration agreement in 1995 allowing 20,000 Cubans to migrate legally to the United States each year, teams from each country met twice annually until 2004 to keep the agreement on track. Likewise, to this day, the American and Cuban commanders on either side of the gate at Guantánamo meet with their counterparts each month. Both sets of talks demonstrate the capacity on both sides for pragmatism, especially when it comes to the essentials of national security. In this vein, your administration should "pursue talks on issues of mutual concern to both parties, such as migration, human smuggling, drug trafficking, public health, the future of the Guantánamo naval base and environmentally sustainable resource management, especially as Cuba, with a number of foreign oil companies, begins deep-water exploration for potentially significant oil reserves." This recommendation of direct talks is hardly controversial. It comes directly from the Council on Foreign Relations and is echoed by a host of leading lights of foreign policy from both political parties, individuals who recognize that diplomacy is not about popularity and favoritism, but an essential tool for promoting the national interest.

There is no pressing reason for you to meet directly with Raúl Castro at this time. Too much groundwork lies ahead before such a meeting would make sense from a foreign policy or domestic political perspective. Well before any such encounter, the United States and Cuba need to embark on a series of talks aimed at establishing common sense cooperation to serve both countries' national interests. If a meeting between you and Raúl Castro appears, down the road, to have potential to significantly advance American interests with respect to Cuba, you should consider participating. And there you can advance a discussion about democracy and human rights, as your counterparts in Europe and Latin America have as well. In that vein, be prepared to hear from Cuba about its own view of human rights in America, in light of Guantánamo. I can assure you that, while clearly willing, Raúl Castro exhibits no sense of urgency to meet with you and has a coterie of senior advisers and experienced negotiators upon whom he will rely instead. In the meantime, the relevant cabinet, national security and military officers in your administration will have to inoculate the individuals they task with shaping and carrying out these talks from the kinds of political pressures that have in the past undermined attempts at conducting a rational, non-ideological approach to American policy toward Cuba. In short, if you want these talks to succeed, as they have in the past under Presidents Carter and Clinton, senior officials in your administration will have to guide them, making it known they are acting at your instruction and under your scrutiny. Simply tasking the bureaucracy—long accustomed to and hampered by ineffectual and politicized thinking on Cuba—to start the talks will doom this initiative.

Unilaterally, you should follow the recommendations of terrorism experts in both parties to remove Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Reagan administration first put Cuba on the list because of its support for leftist rebels in El Salvador. For purely political reasons, the State Department has subsequently kept Cuba on the list, even as Libya and North Korea have been removed. Then, the substantive issues pertaining to American fugitives in Cuba or anti-Castro Cuban terrorists, such as Luis Posada Carriles, now free in the United States, can be addressed in bilateral talks involving the FBI, Justice Department and their Cuban counterparts. Likewise, be prepared for American allies and for the Cuban government to press the case for the release of the Cuban Five, the intelligence agents who in the late 1990s infiltrated South Florida exile groups, produced intelligence on pending terrorist attacks against Cuba, and who, after the Cuban government passed the information to the FBI, were promptly arrested, tried and convicted, in some cases, to multiple life sentences.

Congress — As with American public opinion generally, there is a latent bipartisan consensus in Congress to lift the embargo. Legislation to lift travel and trade sanctions passed between 2000 and 2002, but was stripped in conference when the GOP leadership worked with Cuban-American Republicans in the House and with the White House to prevent any liberalization of Cuba policy. Now, with a stronger Democratic majority in the House and Senate, and especially because of the severity of hurricane damage to Cuba, you can expect to see legislation calling for an end to restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances and on all American travel to Cuba. You can also anticipate bills calling for a suspension of the embargo, its complete elimination or possibly even the repeal of Helms-Burton. Indeed, leading Republicans in both chambers have already joined their Democratic colleagues in advancing a range of such initiatives. Likewise, there is bound to be legislation to significantly boost aid to promote democracy, civil society and human rights. These programs have rightly come under scrutiny for corruption and ineffectiveness in recent years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should work with the key appropriations and authorizations committees to cleanse from the U.S. Agency for International Development all vestiges of programs that smell of regime change. They are ineffectual, they hurt genuine reformers on the island, they provoke the Cuban government to no apparent end and they diminish the credibility of America's real bona fides on democracy, as well as those of Cuban dissidents.

Politics — In your campaign you argued that you would keep the embargo in place to use it as leverage to extract democratic reforms from the Castro government. Mr. President, don't hold your breath. When you campaigned to open up Cuban-American and people-to-people travel and said you'd pursue talks with Cuba, you made sense to all but the most passionate hard-liners on this issue. But when you said you would preserve the embargo as leverage, you sounded as if you were pandering to them. As you know, there is no evidence that any unilateral sanctions program anywhere in the world has ever been effective in changing the internal character of the target government. So I have to assume that you and your political advisers held back on the ultimate disposition of the embargo in order to secure Cuban-American votes. Mr. President, you won Florida without the votes of Cuban-American hard-liners. Because of massive voter registration drives in that state, registered Hispanic Democrats now outnumber Hispanic Republicans by 513,000 to 445,000. You won the state with the votes of 57 percent of Hispanics, up from 44 percent for John Kerry in 2004. In Miami-Dade County, 55 percent of Cuban Americans under 29 years old voted for you, while 84 percent of Cuban Americans over 65 years old voted for John McCain, following the national trend. And although 35 percent of Cuban Americans voted for you, a 10 percent increase over John Kerry's 2004 showing, it was the non-Cuban Hispanic vote and other votes across Florida, especially in the African-American community, that increased your margin enough to carry the state. These gains are less a result of the needle you threaded on American policy toward Cuba than on the strength of your overall platform and campaign. Your triangulated position on Cuba prevented those Cuban-American voters inclined to vote for you from voting against you and attracted first-time American voters. McCain still carried most Cuban-American votes.

In congressional elections, where three Democrats supporting only family travel challenged the three Cuban-American Republican seats in South Florida, all three lost to the incumbents by wide margins. Their races were less about Cuba than about the real issues working Americans face. Although the three Cuban-American Republican hard-liners have been safely reelected, they are now in the minority opposition. And with your victory in Florida the result of a constellation of non-Cuban-American votes, your Cuba policy need no longer defer to the Cuban-American political status quo of the last 50 years.

There are two Cuban-American Democrats in Congress, Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey, who well understand that current policy toward Cuba has failed, and who, I believe, will support Cuban-American and people-to-people travel, as well as direct talks on issues of security, especially. They and their constituents will not support a full-blown elimination of the embargo. Although they may well voice their objections to openings beyond Cuban-American family travel and perhaps some humanitarian trade, they know that their case for granting one group of Americans a right denied to another will not hold up legally, or politically. They will be unable to stop the Democratic leadership in the Congress from pursuing a legislative agenda aimed at ultimately dismantling the embargo. But they will attempt to assure that any legislation aimed at relaxing sanctions is balanced by ample support for human rights and civil society in Cuba. It will be important that whatever initiatives along those lines they advocate are cleansed of the tainted democracy-promotion-regime-change ethos of recent memory. And even then, these programs are likely to remain highly politicized. Whatever their ultimate character, the U.S. Interest Section in Havana must become a proper vehicle for diplomacy and outreach to all Cubans rather than a conduit of cash aimed at inciting would-be anti-regime activists.

In that light, with respect to travel and trade sanctions, I recommend you take the steps your executive authority allows, and leave the rest to Congress. If, five to 10 years from now, Cuba is more pluralistic and more free, it will have been the result of Cuba's own choices. But by following the proposals outlined here, you will be the president of the United States who showed the political courage and foreign policy wisdom to create the external conditions that will have made possible such a long-elusive outcome.

Julia Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow and Director, Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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