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President Obama: In Search of a Creative Policy Towards Cuba

With the emergence of autonomous civil society and a significant market-oriented sector in Cuba, the U.S. insistence that the embargo is against the Castro government, not the people, becomes contradictory.
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President Barack Obama was in Miami on Friday connecting with the political base that supported his re-election in 2012. Obama appeared at a Cuban American National Foundation fundraising activity, where he discussed perspectives on U.S. policy toward Cuba. Some analysis, on the right and the left, has emphasized photos of the president with Berta Soler, a woman who calls the Cuba of Batista's dictatorship a "little cup of gold," and Guillermo Fariñas, a government opponent from Santa Clara who claims ties with Cuban military personnel who identify with the opposition. According to these readings of the situation, Obama has gone to the intransigent exile Mecca to reiterate his commitment to current U.S. policy.

But calling attention to the photos obscures the substance of the president's remarks, the central theme of which was a respectful questioning of the isolation policy as anachronistic. The president proposed bringing rationality to U.S.-Cuba policy. This would unavoidably leave behind unnecessary hostility, befitting the post-Cold War era and an emerging Cuba where major changes are recognized. The repetition of some expected interventionist platitudes, rather than confirming the president's support for the embargo, seems destined to provide political coverage for some policy changes in the near future.

For starters, President Obama called for a "creative" analysis of U.S. strategy, thus inviting U.S. foreign policy apparatus to question the value of the current policy toward Cuba, which has been declared anachronistic by the president himself. It makes no sense, if the State Department looks at the matter rationally, to annoy the international community and hinder dialogue with Cuba by gratuitously including the government of Raul Castro on the list of state sponsors of terrorism without providing any credible argument.

A rational policy cannot emerge from a distorted image. Cuba is a country in transition, where economic reform and political liberalization is occurring. Maintaining a sanctions policy based on the false premise that the island is a terrorist threat, isolated in the hemisphere, not only diminishes the credibility of the U.S., but hinders the development of a policy tailored to the challenges and opportunities created by reforms that have taken place since Fidel Castro's retirement.

One problem for U.S. policy is that several of the complaints about the Cuban system are becoming outdated. Since Cuba reformed its travel policies in October 2012, it has been easier for Cubans to travel to the U.S. than for U.S. residents to travel to Cuba. The more Cuba transitions to a mixed economy the more the narrative that paints Cuba as a remnant of the Cold War is removed from reality. A dominant state sector remains, but the private and cooperative sectors are growing. Unlike during the 90s when the government insisted on preserving a command economy, the new non-state sector is part of an integrated development strategy. Religious freedoms have also expanded.

With the emergence of autonomous civil society and a significant market-oriented sector in Cuba, the U.S. insistence that the embargo is against the Castro government, not the people, becomes contradictory. The strategy of economic asphyxiation does not differentiate between the state and non-state sectors. Why don't we discuss measures for allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba if they utilize private lodging, and for giving private entrepreneurs access to the U.S. market? Why there are not more comprehensive negotiations between Cuba and the United States on security issues, counter-narcotics, and international crime fighting? It is clear that the embargo is out of step with U.S. values and runs counter to peaceful and orderly changes on the island.

A prime example involves Cuban baseball. Until a few months ago Cuban players who decided to try their luck in the major leagues were considered deserters. Now that Cuban athletes are free to play anywhere, the U.S. is in a curious position: Will Washington take "yes" for an answer, accept Cuba's positive response to U.S. past denunciations and reciprocate by allowing players, who reside in Cuba, to participate in the major leagues?

The embargo is disconnected from the hemispheric and global balance of power. For two decades, this U.S. policy has been overwhelmingly condemned in the United Nations. Russia, China and Brazil have shown satisfaction with the modernization of Cuba's Mariel port and its conversion into a special economic zone, which is similar to steps taken in Vietnam and China. Mexico has just negotiated favorable terms for Cuba's debt, clearing the way for greater involvement in the economic opening of the island. All of Latin America has announced that it will not attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas without Cuba, and that the U.S. embargo will be a subject of contention.

If President Obama wants to get "creative", article 2 of the U.S. Constitution confers upon him broad powers to do so. Despite all the undue Congressional meddling authorized by the Helms-Burton Law, the executive branch has the ability to adopt an attitude of pragmatic compromise, negotiation, and exchange with Cuba. Besides removing Cuba from the State Department's list of terrorist sponsoring nations, the president can issue a general license for non-tourist travel to Cuba and adopt measures that stimulate ongoing reforms. The president can also discuss George Bush's USAID's responsibility for the design of interventionist and provocative programs that led to Cuba's imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American subcontractor. The State Department can negotiate a reasonable solution to this problem and bring Mr. Gross back to Maryland, with his family and Jewish congregation.

A "creative" and updated U.S. policy toward Cuba is long overdue. Given the potential benefits to both countries, it's worth a try.