February 2013
Position Papers

Restoring Executive Authority Over U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

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Seventeen years after its enactment, the Helms-Burton Act—which further codified the sanctions framework commonly referred to as the U.S. embargo against Cuba and conditions its suspension on the existence of a transition or democratic government in Cuba—has proven to be a counterproductive policy that has failed to achieve its stated purposes in an increasingly interconnected world.

Helms-Burton has failed to advance the cause of freedom and prosperity for the Cuban people, to encourage free and democratic elections in Cuba, to secure international sanctions against the Cuban government, or to advance the national security interests of the United States.1 It provides a policy framework for U.S. support to the Cuban people in response to the formation of a transition government in Cuba; yet, the all-or-nothing nature of its conditions for suspension undermine that very framework by effectively placing control over changes to embargo sanctions in the hands of the current Cuban leadership. Simply stated, it is an archaic policy that hinders the ability of the United States to respond swiftly, intelligently and in a nuanced way to developments on the island. 

Worst of all, the failures of Helms-Burton have more recently produced a tragic paradox: Policies once designed to promote democratization through isolation are now stifling civil society, including an emerging class of private entrepreneurs and democracy advocates whose rise represents the best hope for a free and open society in Cuba in more than 50 years.

The Cuba Study Group believes that the most effective way to break the deadlock of “all-or-nothing” conditionality and remedy the ineffectiveness of current U.S.-Cuba policy is to de-codify the embargo through the repeal of Helms-Burton and related statutory provisions in Torricelli and TSRA that limit the Executive Branch’s authority over U.S. foreign policy toward the Island (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Helms-Burton and related statutory provisions”). De-codifying the embargo would allow the Executive Branch the flexibility to respond strategically to developments in the Island as they take place; using the entire range of foreign policy tools at its disposal—including diplomatic, economic, legal, political and cultural—to advance the cause of human rights and incentivize changes in Cuba.

The primary consequences of Helms-Burton and related statutory provisions have been to isolate the United States from Cuba and to serve as a political scapegoat for the Cuban government’s many failures. It has become a “Great Crutch” to all sides of the Cuba debate. First, for ordinary Cubans, their struggle has fallen hostage to an international dispute between their government and the United States, which they see themselves as powerless to affect. For the Cuban leadership, it has become easier to blame the embargo than to adopt the difficult reforms needed to fix their economy. Lastly, for defenders of the status-quo within the Cuban-American community, it has become easier to wait for the United States to solve our national problem rather than engage in the difficult and necessary processes of reconciliation and reunification.

Helms-Burton indiscriminately impacts all sectors of Cuban society, including democracy advocates and private entrepreneurs, causing disproportionate economic damage to the most vulnerable segments of the population. Conditioning our policy of resource denial on sweeping political reforms has only served to strengthen the Cuban government. The scarce resources available in an authoritarian Cuba have been and continue to be allocated primarily based on political priorities, thereby increasing the state’s relative power and its ability to control its citizens. 

The majority of American voters, Cuban-Americans and Cuban democracy advocates on the Island have rejected isolation as an element of U.S. policy toward Cuba and have called on the U.S. government to implement a policy of greater contact and exchange with Cuban society. As Cuba undergoes a slow and uncertain process of reforms, the continued existence of blanket U.S. sanctions only hinders the types of political reforms that Helms-Burton demands.

Instead of maintaining a rigid policy that ties our hands and obsesses over hurting the Cuban leadership, U.S. policymakers should adopt a results-oriented policy that focuses primarily on empowering the Cuban people while simultaneously pressing the Cuban government to cease its repressive practices and respect fundamental human rights. Repealing Helms-Burton would also free civil society development and assistance programs to be implemented outside of a contentious sanctions framework.

Furthermore, the Cuba Study Group believes that any forthcoming congressional review of current legislation relating to Cuba, such as a review of the Cuban Adjustment Act, must require a review of the totality of the legislative framework codified in Helms-Burton and related statutory provisions so that the United States may finally develop a coherent policy toward the Island.

While we wait on the U.S. Congress to act, the Executive Branch should continue to take proactive steps through its limited licensing authority to safeguard and expand the free flow of contacts and resources to the Island, encourage independent economic and political activity in Cuba, and increase the relative power of Cuban private actors. The U.S. should pursue these courses of action independent of actions taken by the Cuban government so as not to place the reigns of U.S. policy in the hands of Cuban proponents of the status quo.

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