President Barack Obama talks with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough while sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Nov. 18, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama’s Meeting In Miami: What It All Means – Analysis

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By Keith Bolender

President Obama, who has been consistently inconsistent in his dealings with Cuba, demonstrated once again his mastery of the mixed message.

The president was in Miami on November 8th for an important fundraising event. There he met with the head of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) Jorge Mas Santos, as well as a number of pro-embargo Cuban dissidents including Guillermo Farinas. This informal gathering in the house of Santos resulted in a lengthy debate on the current state of affairs in Cuba and the impact of Obama’s policies since his election in 2008. The president’s comments elicited positive reaction from both sides of the Cuban question — from the pro-embargo proponents who took his words to mean a commitment to stay the course, and from those who claimed Obama indicated a desire to change American strategy, to possibly accelerate a process of engagement. And there were many who observed it was exactly what Obama wanted to accomplish — giving hope to all.

In a rare admission that the economic reforms now unfurling in Cuba are being noticed in Washington, President Obama commented:

“And we’ve started to see changes on the island. Now, I think we all understand that, ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.” [1]

In those short few sentences, the president was able to provide encouragement to both sides of the embargo divide. He signalled that the US would continue to define political concepts such as “freedom in Cuba” through those who are in support of Washington’s policy of regime change. Imposing ambiguous terminology such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ have been the foundations for justifying American hostility against the Cuban revolution; aggression expressed through Washington’s economic blockade, propaganda, terrorism, and prohibiting its citizens from travelling to the island. In that sense Obama is simply backing the continuation of established US strategy.

However, he then introduced the concept that a new approach might be in order, implying US policy has been less than successful for the past 50 years. That’s where the anti-embargo advocates have taken a certain amount of reassurance, claiming that Obama is preparing a shift in strategy that would increase engagement with Havana, and that “an update in policy” might lead to the ending of travel restrictions, a movement towards shutting down the embargo, and normalization. [2]

It is vintage Obama, cleverly constructed verbiage designed to keep all options open, to appeal to both sides through rationality, compassion and skilled diplomacy. It has led those who support the continued punishment of Cuba to believe that the president may now be on their side, as expressed by Farinas who said, “The most important thing here was the recognition by the president of the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world.” [3] Just as significant was the reaction from the anti-embargo voices, led by the head of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, John McAuliff, who suggested, “It would not be a surprise if President Obama laid groundwork for a significant improvement in US policy toward Cuba in Miami and with prominent dissidents in the room.” [4]

So everyone has reason to be optimistic regarding Obama’s future treatment of Cuba, a classic example of the president’s desire to be “inclusive”. Interestingly, prior to his election, Obama had little trouble expressing what side of the Cuba policy fence he sat on. As a presidential candidate, the then-young senator from Illinois stated clearly on his website and on the campaign trail that the embargo was a ‘failure’ and that it was time to change policy and not to be afraid to talk directly with Havana. When he gained control of the White House, his stance altered substantially as he succumbed to the anti-Castro lobby. Obama publicly proclaimed his support for the continuation of embargo along its current lines until the Cubans acquiesced to American standards of ‘capitalist democracy’ – the same refrain from every president since the revolution triumphed in 1959. To make it clear Obama is not the only one affected by the lack of a generosity of spirit when it comes to a post-election Cuba-syndrome; Secretary of State John Kerry, himself a prior advocate of a more rational treatment of Cuba, just last week declared that despite all the reforms taking place, Havana still needs to do more if the US was going to consider a move towards normalization. [5]

After winning the White House, the president did follow up on a promise he made to his Cuban-American constituents, allowing them to visit their homeland without restrictions, a change that has had a positive impact on Cuba’s economy through an influx of material goods and financial remittances. He also expanded certain levels of highly-regulated licensed travel for American citizens. This enabled Kerry to stress in his OAS speech that Cuba must do more to gain a negotiated settlement of the ongoing dispute between Havana and Washington. But Obama has maintained the embargo and the regulations preventing US tourists from travelling to the island. In addition he continues to keep Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and annually signs the continuation of the Trading with the Enemy Act, which provided the legislative justification for the embargo and travel restrictions.

Cuban officials constantly complain that Obama has in fact tightened certain aspects of the embargo, making it harder for Havana to conduct normal international banking transactions, and has increased the amount and frequency of fining international banks that do business with Cuba. As one Cuban foreign affairs diplomat noted, “[Obama] puts on a face of easing restrictions against us, but behind the scenes he is making things much worse. And look at who he met in Miami — the head of the CANF, one of the strongest proponents of the embargo and of the aggression against our country, including involvement with terrorism.” [6] In the past few years the stance of CANF has actually softened somewhat, with Mas Santos stating that a less antagonistic approach to Cuba might be more effective in promoting change.

While Obama’s statements may contain enough meat for both sides to chew on, it should be understood that the president’s core belief remains that Cuba has to install a political/economic system conforming to US standards in order for normalization to begin.

President Obama made it clear in his statement in Miami to the pro-embargo audience, “And I think that partly because we’re of the same generation, we recognize that the aims are always going to be the same. And what we have to do is to continually find new mechanisms and new tools to speak out on behalf of the issues that we care so deeply about.” [7]

This likely means that while he is fully behind the strategy of regime change, he just might want to achieve it with a velvet glove instead of the iron fist. If Obama did utilize his presidential authority to ease aspects of the embargo and circumvent much of the existing travel restrictions, it would be from his perspective that flooding American tourists into Cuba with all their money and high-tech gadgets, as well as permitting U.S. businesses onto the island would be the post-modern method of ending the regime. The theory is that the Cuban government would not be able to control the political or economic influences of the American influx and the socialist experiment might very well collapse upon itself. This would lead to the United States re-establishing its interests on the island, and the abrupt end of the revolution.

The president’s comments in Miami indicate he may be leaning towards that strategy, that he believes his policy of increased licensed travel and ending all restrictions for Cuban-Americans to visit the island has been the impetus for the economic reforms taking place in Cuba. He is sorely mistaken if that is the case, as the various changes under Raul Castro were implemented in order to achieve a more adaptive socialist model, and not to return to a system of American-style unregulated capitalism. The reforms have included a number of concessions to market influenced economics, instituted in an attempt to fix the shortcomings in the Cuban economy, as well as to address new formulations to streamline the country’s political structure. They were accomplished in the face of growing American hostility, not because the Havana government bowed to it. New Cuban leadership, including high-ranking officials Miguel Diaz-Canal and Marino Murillo, may combine their generational influences and perspectives with the support of the majority of Cuban people to continue along a 21st Century socialist path regardless of whether or not U.S. hostility remains.

For years, Cubans have been ready to normalize relations with the United States, fully understanding the complications and pressures that that would bring. The revolutionary government has long dealt with Washington’s chronic aggression and its repeated attempts to destroy the system – having the US no longer the enemy would be a much preferred condition. It would be far easier to confront the social difficulties and economic inequalities that might ensue from normalization, than it has been to overcome the hardships of America’s unending siege. It would also allow the two countries to fully engage on a number of issues, besides the few items currently being discussed such as postal services and immigration matters. So much else needs to be addressed, including environmental and security concerns, and the long-standing controversies over the Cuban intelligence officers known as the “Cuban 5” held in U.S. jails, and Cuba’s continued incarceration of American Alan Gross, convicted of bringing into Cuba illegal high-tech communication equipment. There is, however, a political element that seems to get lost whenever the president speaks of Cuba. Obama does have in his power the ability to take certain discretionary measures that would allow him to signal a willingness to shift the outdated Cold War dynamics: he can increase licensed travel, remove Cuba from the list of States that Sponsor Terrorism, permit increased exceptions for economic exchanges, free the Cuban Five and refuse to sign the extension of the Trading With the Enemy Act. Those actions would lessen the effects of the embargo and lower US hostility. But the president does not have the authority to end the embargo nor the travel restrictions. That lies in the hands of Congress, which was granted control by President Clinton in the mid-1990s with the signing of the Helms-Burton Act.

So while Obama is the technical voice of Cuban policy, the heart and soul now is in Congress with the Cuban-American members who regulate it; such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio. Only with an ending of their reign as gatekeepers of Cuban strategy will Congress have a chance to successfully formulate and pass laws ending the travel restrictions and embargo. Moderate Cuban-American voices are needed, and one was elected in 2012 with the upset victory of Democrat Joe Garcia (former head of CANF) over fellow Cuban-American David Rivera, an extreme hard-right Republican. Garcia’s new voice is offering at least a more temperate sound, demonstrated recently when he came out in favor of the United States testing the Cuban diabetes drug Herberprot. [8] His fellow Cuban-American congressmen predictably opposed the possibility, condemning Garcia as not being sufficiently intransigent against the Castro government.

Garcia’s position, however, was well received in the Cuban community in Florida, and if the newer generation of Cuban-American immigrants become politically active they could soon vote in more moderate voices, which would give legislation that ends the travel restrictions and embargo a better chance to pass through Congress. They, along with recently formed anti-embargo organizations such as Foundation for Normalization of U.S./Cuba Relations (FORNORM) and Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) could have a considerable and even more constructive bearing on Cuban policy in the near future. As with most things in the United States, congressional politics hold the key to change. When it comes to Cuba, it is the only place where the embargo and travel restrictions will end, no matter what Obama says or where he says it.

Obama can continue to make statements where hope is gained by the two sides of the embargo spectrum. It is in his political nature to keep all options open, and it is encouraging to see that the president recognizes some of the changes taking place in Cuba. But those seeking to take too much out of that must tread with care, because it cannot be forgotten that as a U.S. president, Obama will continue to work towards his stated goal of regime change, which has been a staple of past U.S. administrations for decades. If he supports traditional methods of hostility, the Cubans have more than enough experience to manage. If he moves towards a modern strategy of easing elements of the travel restrictions and the decades-old embargo, then the Cubans are ready and waiting. Either way, Cuba will remain committed to bring its brand of socialism into modernity, while Obama continues to work both sides of the aisle.

Keith Bolender, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

References

[1] Felsenthal, Mark. “Obama says U.S. needs to update policies on Cuba” Reuters. November 8, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/09/us-usa-obama-cuba-idUSBRE9A802620131109

[2] McAuliff, John. “A further step” The Havana Note. November 16, 2013. http://thehavananote.com/node/1081#disqus_thread

[3] Tamayo, Juan O. ”‘Incredible night’ as Obama meets Cuban dissidents in Miami” Miami Herald. November 8, 2013. http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/11/08/3740537/incredible-night-as-obama-meets.html

[4] Mcauliff, John. “A Further Step.” The Havana Note. November 16, 2013. http://thehavananote.com/node/1081#disqus_thread

[5] Wyss, Jim. “Kerry Harps on Cuban Democracy, Climate Change in OAS Speech.” Miami Herald. November 18 ,2013. http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/11/18/3762874/kerry-harps-on-cuban-democracy.html

[6] Interview with author, official asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

[7] Tamayo, Juan O. “‘Incredible night’ as Obama meets Cuban dissidents in Miami” Miami Herald. http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/11/08/3740537/incredible-night-as-obama-meets.html November 8, 2013

[8] Caputo, Marc. “Rep. Garcia’s push for Cuba drug trial tests support for embargo” Miami Herald. http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/10/07/3676239/rep-garcias-push-for-cuba-drug.html October 7, 2013

About the author:

COHA

COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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