The End of the Resource-Denial Policy Myth?

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his last news conference of
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his last news conference of the year in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House December 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama faced questions on various topics including the changing of Cuba policy, the Sony hack, and his plan on working with a Republican majority Congress. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When President Obama announced that he would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba and take steps to increase the free flow of people, resources and information to the island, he delivered an important blow to the myth of resource denial as a viable policy. For more than half a century, defenders of the status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba have argued that denying the Cuban government hard currency would advance U.S. interests. After nine U.S. Presidents followed these unilateral sanctions to no avail, President Obama has set us on a new course -- but will Congress follow suit or will it cave to the same old pressures?

The logic of the resource-denial policy works something like this: the Cuban regime needs hard currency to stay afloat and to finance its repressive machine. Therefore, if we deny Cuba the hard currency it would acquire through normal diplomatic and trade relations with the U.S., it will lose control and collapse, leading to democracy and respect for human rights.

The reasoning for this policy has shifted over the years. The Kennedy Administration first imposed sanctions to punish the Castro regime for expropriating properties owned by U.S. nationals. During the Cold War, the policy was repurposed as a needed tool to curtail Cuba's export of communism. Most recently, hardliners have argued that this policy is the only way to stand in solidarity with democracy advocates on the island in helping them usher in the demise of the Castros. In the same roughly 50-year period, most property claims by U.S. nationals have been written off as losses for tax purposes, Cuba has enjoyed some success exporting its revolution to Latin America, and despite the crippling loss of over half its GDP with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government remains firmly in power.

After the abysmal failure of the hardline policy to oust the Castros, members of this camp will no doubt be left clamoring that the regime would have collapsed had the U.S. kept its isolation in place a bit longer. With the fragility of the Venezuelan government, the inevitable deaths of Fidel and Raul, another devastating hurricane, or another half billion in U.S. democracy promotion programs, the regime's days must be numbered. Fortunately, President Obama grew tired of this failed strategy and seized the opportunity to put us on a new course that focuses on helping the Cuban people instead of suffocating the Cuban government.

In addition to its failure to affect change in Cuba, the resource-denial policy has actually made change harder. While hardliners argue that the embargo would bring the government to its knees, what we've observed for decades is a country where citizens earn an average of $20 per month while its leaders vacation in Italy -- hardly the crippling effect hardliners promised us. Of course, it is the Cuban government's failed policies, not the embargo, that are chiefly responsible for the nation's economic woes.

With that said, we cannot ignore the embargo's impact on Cubans as it intensifies their isolation and continues to provide the Cuban government with a scapegoat for its own mismanagement. To the extent that the embargo makes it more difficult for ordinary Cubans to access U.S. information and technologies, raises the cost for entrepreneurs to start or run businesses, makes civil-society exchanges more difficult, and stands in the way of family reunification, it has only helped the Cuban government make Cubans more dependent on the state to satisfy basic needs.

The change in strategy toward Cuba announced on December 17 by President Obama finally calls a spade a spade and breaks with the defeatist strategy of the past. It shifts our focus away from targeting the collapse of the government and toward the empowerment of civil society. By increasing the free flow of people, resources and information to the Cuban people, President Obama acknowledges what many Cuban dissidents, like former political prisoner and independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe argued: while the regime may recoup hard currency from increased engagement, the benefits to the Cuban people outweigh the benefits to the government.

The wisdom in Chepe's words became evident following President Obama's 2009 policy changes, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of trips by Cuban-Americans, billions in remittances and goods taken by travelers, and robust civil-society exchanges. All this coincided with the release of political prisoners, a spike in civil-society activity, the growth of more than half a million independent Cuban entrepreneurs, and the most important changes in Cuba since the revolution.

And so begins the end of the myth of the policy of resource denial. President Obama has taken the leadership under his executive authority to break with this failed policy, and poll after poll shows the American people -- and Cuban Americans among them -- support such a move. But the embargo was codified into law under the leadership of Cuban-American hardliners in Congress back in 1996 and only Congress can do away with it. The question now is whether members of Congress will stand up to those who would have them double down on this policy, which amounts to little more than a costly myth, or if it too will decide instead to empower the Cuban people.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

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