President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba is an historic shift in U.S. policy, as dramatic and significant as President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China in 1972. In both cases, the presidents finally jettisoned a policy that had been in place for decades, showed no positive results, and was isolating the United States from its allies more than it was harming our adversary. Both policies were also met with howls of betrayal from supporters of the status quo, but history has proven Nixon right and it will vindicate Obama, too.
A good deal
The best argument in support of the president’s decision to replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement is the argument he himself emphasized: The old policy just did not work. It was “long past its expiration date,” as he said in the State of the Union address. “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.”
Criticism from members of Congress, voiced most recently in hearings before House and Senate committees, has centered on two arguments: that Obama gave Cuba too much and got too little in return; and that Obama threw the tottering Castro regime a “lifeline,” saving it from economic collapse. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) called Obama “the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime,” and arguing that Obama gave the Cuban government “everything it asked for” and got nothing in return.
In fact, Obama got quite a bit: the release of Alan Gross, U.S. intelligence asset Rolando Sarraff, and 53 Cuban political prisoners; expanded internet access for the Cuban people; and a promise by Cuba to cooperate with the United Nations on human rights and with the International Red Cross on prison conditions.
Cuba won the release from prison of its three remaining spies from the Cuban Five, a U.S. promise to review Cuba’s inclusion on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the restoration of diplomatic relations, which is more symbolic than substantive since the two countries already have diplomatic Interests Sections in each other’s capitals. In addition, Obama took a number if unilateral actions reducing restrictions on travel to Cuba and trade with the private sector. But the U.S, embargo remains in place, as does a long list of policies that Cuba finds offensive—democracy promotion programs, TV and Radio Martí, the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Cuban Medical Personnel Parole Program, and the U.S. occupation of Guantánamo naval base. Cuba certainly didn’t get “everything.”
But the real value of the agreement for Cuba is Obama’s decision to abandon subversion and economic pressure as a means to coerce Havana into changing its political and economic system. That shift opens the door to progress on other issues and the eventual establishment of a truly normal relationship once the vestiges of the old policy have been dismantled. For Raúl Castro, the prospect of open trade and investment between Cuba and the United State, though far in the future, is an important component of his plan to reorganize the Cuban economy along sustainable lines.
While commerce with the United States is important for Cuba’s long term economic health, Obama’s policy changes did not rescue Cuba from impending economic catastrophe, as his critics contend. This argument is the latest version of an argument that defenders of the status quo have been repeating for fifty years. Every time anyone suggests it’s time for a change, they insist that the old policy of hostility is on the verge of success, and if we just give it a little more time, the Cuban regime will fall. To change the policy now would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
In the newest iteration of this excuse for inaction, conservatives argue that Cuba’s weak economy is fatally dependent on cheap Venezuelan oil. The economic crisis in Venezuela will force the government there to cut its subsidized oil shipments to Cuba, thus collapsing the Cuban economy and the regime with it. At least, conservatives contend, that’s what would have happened if Obama had not bailed Castro out.
In fact, despite its mounting economic problems, Venezuela has not reduced oil shipments to Cuba significantly because it needs the 40,000 Cuban medical personnel whose services pay for that oil. Even if Venezuela stopped shipping oil to Cuba, economists predict that the resulting recession would be modest compared to the depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union—a depression the Cuban regime survived. Finally, the relaxation of U.S. restrictions on travel and trade with the Cuban private sector will not provide a huge economic windfall to Havana. Tourism is still prohibited and the Cuban private sector is still tiny.
In short, the conservative arguments against Obama’s new policy are flimsy props for an anachronistic policy that no longer has the support of U.S. allies abroad, the American people, or even most Cuban Americans. Like the old China Lobby that railed against Nixon’s opening to China, the Cuba lobby’s days are past. Everyone else is looking toward the future.