August 31, 2020
by Ricardo Herrero, Programa Cuba

U.S.-Cuba policy whiplash only preserves the status-quo

For nearly four years, the Donald Trump Administration has slowly but methodically reversed its predecessor’s policy of détente with Cuba. Complimented at all times by a steady program of political rallies and high-level public appearances in Miami, the administration’s aim has been consistent: to cancel President Barack Obama’s “failed” and “one-sided deal with Cuba,” and punish the Cuban regime for “its abuses.”

To understand whether the Obama Administration’s policy was indeed a failure, it is first important to understand its guiding theory of change. As Obama articulated in his historic December 17, 2014, speech announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba: “I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight. But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”

The Obama administration understood that a half-century strategy of resource denial –first implemented through trade sanctions under presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, and later codified under Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and other laws– had failed to advance any positive transformations is Cuban society. On the contrary, it had isolated the United States from Western allies in its approach to Cuba and provided the Castro government with an expedient justification for its iron-fisted rule and devastating, centrally planned economy. Further, by conditioning the all-or-nothing lifting of sanctions on the existence of a democratic transition government in Cuba and the exit of the Castro brothers from power, Helms-Burton effectively placed the timetable for US re-engagement in the hands of the Cuban Communist Party.

Instead, the Obama team accepted the fundamental lesson behind 55 years of embargo policy: change in Cuba had to come from within. It could not be micromanaged by bureaucrats in Washington. They recognized that the best ambassadors of democratic values in Cuba were Americans and Cuban-Americans and that opening travel and trade was the most promising way to increase the autonomy of the Cuban people and strengthen their position to demand changes from their own government. A policy that made life easier for Cubans on the island, even if it brought a collateral benefit to the Cuban state, was the more virtuous path and the more likely to incentivize positive change.

Between early 2015 and early 2017, the Obama administration used its discretionary authority over elements of the embargo to make it easier for US citizens and residents to travel to the island, eased restrictions on spending money in and sending money to Cuba, and opened the door for limited forms of US investment that stood to primarily benefit the Cuban people.

On the merits of its own goals—incrementally empowering the Cuban people—engagement was a success. Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of US travelers to Cuba helped fuel a significant expansion of Cuba’s nascent private sector, benefitting thousands of livelihoods. By the fall of 2016, there were more than 500,000 licensed cuentapropistas (self-employed workers) operating on the island. When private farmers, employees of joint ventures, and informal sector workers are added in, Cuba’s non-state sector accounted for more than one-third of the Cuban labor force at the time, though still excessively constrained by the state. American travelers, and business partners like Airbnb and commercial banks, helped make private entrepreneurship the most dynamic, jobs-producing sector of the Cuban economy, particularly in 2015 and 2016. By relaxing remittance restrictions, the White House also facilitated the creation of new financial linkages between Cubans at home and abroad. Albeit functioning informally and not recognized as investment under Cuban law, remittances provided key start-up capital for Cuban private sector growth.

Further, as part of the agreement to normalize diplomatic relations in 2014, Cuba committed to expanding Internet access for its citizens. Regulatory changes authorizing US investment, dialogue, and partnerships with Cuba’s state telecommunications authorities contributed to an environment that saw the Cuban government follow through on this commitment beginning with the creation of public Wi-Fi hotspots in 2015, and later with expansions into home broadband in 2017 and 3G coverage in 2018. By the time Cuba rolled out 4G in 2019, 1.8 million of the island’s 5.3 million cell phone subscribers were regularly accessing the Internet from their mobile devices, according to independent news site 14ymedio.


(Read the full article at Programa Cuba by clicking on the link below.)


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