Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Obama Takes A Positive Step on Cuba, Michael Shifter - Inter-American Dialogue

Obama Takes A Positive Step on Cuba
El Colombiano, January 18, 2011

[Una versión de este articulo en español está disponible aquí en el sitio de Inter-American Dialogue].

Just before he left office, Brazil's president Lula said in an interview that he was disappointed in President Obama's Latin American policy during the first two years of his term.   Nothing much had changed from the Bush era, Lula complained.  

Although he didn't say so explicitly then, it is reasonable to assume that what Lula also meant is that Obama had not made any progress in dismantling the 50 year-old US embargo against Cuba.  
This issue has long irritated Latin American governments – and divided the region from Washington.  The policy is widely seen as anachronistic, and hostage to US domestic politics. 

That is why Obama's decisions on Cuba policy announced on January 14th are significant.

The administration's measures will increase people-to-people contacts between Cuban and US society (including religious and academic institutions), enable US citizens to help support the private enterprise-oriented reforms recently unveiled by the Cuban government, and expand the number of US airports that can fly directly to Cuba.

To be sure, the actual embargo – which is a matter of US law, approved by the Congress – remains in effect, but last week's announcements shows that there is room for greater US opening and engagement with Cuba, provided there is presidential commitment. 

Obama, who has been far more cautious as president than many supporters had hoped two years ago, made the decision in a way that would limit the possible political reaction.  He did so after the November elections (right before a holiday weekend) – and precisely at a moment when he seemed to be regaining his political footing and rising in the polls.  

He had a very productive "lame duck" session with the old Congress. And from all indications there had been an agreement with the Cuban government about the status of a US contractor who had been detained without charges for more than a year. 


The timing seemed right to go ahead with decisions that many within the Obama administration had been urging the president to take – and that were supported by the vast majority of Americans, and especially the left in his party.  

To be sure, sharp criticism came from predictable quarters, including Cuban Americans and other hardliners in Congress.  

They fear the changes will only end up bolstering the Cuban government.  But these steps are likely to be viewed as positive and will be greeted favorably by most in the US -- as well as Latin Americans.  
There is at least some movement on an issue that has been frozen for many years. 

The question, however, is whether this announcement will be followed by others and is part of a broader, longer-term strategy aimed at moving steadily towards normalizing relations with Cuba.  
Does the policy continue to be driven by domestic political calculations? Or will US Cuba policy now be more guided more sensibly by US interests and values?

The Obama administration deserves credit for making the most important changes in Cuba policy in decades.   Many, of course, will not be satisfied until the failed and counterproductive trade embargo itself is ended. 

This is out of the question, however, especially given the composition of the new US Congress. 

But with a measure of ingenuity and boldness at the presidential level considerable progress can be made -- even while the embargo persists. 

Further, reasonable steps would include a strong call from Obama to Congress to lift the travel ban for all Americans and cooperation on oil development in Cuba. 

2011 will be a critical year in Cuba. The economic reform measures are underway. 

Now there is a chance that, instead of standing on the sidelines or making matters worse, the US can be more constructively engaged in shaping its neighbor's uncertain future.     


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