The United States ought to have the flexibility to use the broad range of foreign policy tools at its disposal to respond to developments anywhere in the world as they occur. This means it should be able to take targeted, clear actions when they can make a difference. When it comes to Cuba, such actions should aim to influence the Cuban government, empower Cuban civil society, and advance our national interests in the region.
Instead, America's hands are tied by an overreaching law that makes all of the above incredibly difficult and often impossible: the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.
Otherwise known as the LIBERTAD Act, Helms-Burton was a shoddy piece of legislation born of domestic political expediency. President Bill Clinton, who signed it into law, recognized this in his 2004 memoir, where he admits, "supporting the law was good election-year politics in Florida, but it undermined whatever chance I might have if I won a second term to lift the embargo in return for positive changes within Cuba."
Helms-Burton was created "to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes." It's drafters envisioned a singular scenario in which the world came together to strangle the Cuban economy and force a desperate people to rise up against their communist leaders. The law codified almost all diplomatic and economic sanctions toward Cuba under one law, and made their suspension contingent upon a list of all-or-nothing conditions that amounted to the Cuban regime abdicating power.
Multilateral sanctions were a crucial component of the Helms-Burton formula if it was to have any chance of succeeding. However, the world rejected the law almost immediately, and in the 18 years since, the United States has found itself more isolated in its approach toward Cuba than before the law passed. Our Latin American and European allies are betting on an eventual opening in Cuba and holding open talks with the Cuban government on an agenda that includes civil liberties and democratic participation - the very demands we make of the Cubans without wanting to speak to them.
Forget about "leading from behind." When it comes to Cuba, we are simply behind.
Attitudes in the U.S. toward our Cuba policy have shifted since the enactment of Helms-Burton. Americans have lost faith in isolation and resource denial, and a majority favor social and economic engagement with the Cuban people. Cuban-Americans are traveling in record numbers to support their families and reconnect with the communities in which they grew up. Thousands are also backing Cuba's emerging class of half-a-million independent entrepreneurs by providing their friends and relatives in the Island with the seed funding and resources to grow their businesses and decrease their dependence on the state.
This flow of contacts and support to the Cuban people is possible thanks to a calculation made by the Obama foreign policy team early on in its administration: in order to better help the Cuban people, we need to get counterproductive U.S. sanctions out of the way. The Obama White House proceeded to use the limited authority it had left under Helms-Burton to expand travel and remittances to the Island, measures that have done more to empower everyday Cubans over the past five years than anything else had done in the 50 years before them.
Since 2009, pro-democracy advocates in Cuba have grown more vocal, numerous, and resourceful than before. Independent businesses are better poised to weather the economic upheavals brought by socialist central planning, and the threat of mass migration to the U.S. is at its lowest point in decades.
Cuban civil society has grown and diversified in ways that weren't anticipated when Helm-Burton was drafted, and that alone is reason enough to rethink its failed sanctions framework. It's one thing to impose blanket sanctions on a country with no independent activity, but quite another to impose them on a country where the people are actively gaining autonomy. Today, our 1996 formula does more to hinder the processes of change we want to see in Cuba than to advance them in any meaningful way.
Any sanctions on Cuba should be targeted toward those individuals directly involved in human rights violations on the Island. The rest of our policy should be focused on empowering the Cuban people to freely determine their own futures. As Secretary of State John Kerry recognized at the 44th Conference on the Americas last month: "the most effective tool we have to promote this goal is helping to build deeper connections between the Cuban and American peoples. The hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who now send remittances and who travel each year under the President's policies, they are critical to ensuring that the Cuban people have more of the opportunities that they deserve."
The President can and should do more under his current authority to further increase contacts and economic engagement with Cuban civil society, as he has been urged to do by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and more than 40 former high-ranking U.S. officials, though leaders, and prominent members of the Cuban-American community.
If he doesn't, how long will it take congressional leaders to come to terms with the failure of Helms-Burton and revise our laws to better advance U.S. policy goals? Whatever the answer, every minute that passes undermines our national interests, and even worse, undercuts our ability to support the very people we most want to help.
Ricardo Herrero is the Executive Director of #CubaNow, www.cubanow.us (on twitter @Cuba_Now). He lives in Miami, Florida.