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04.14.09

Obama's Cuba Policy Is Half Right

Easing restrictions was a decent first step, says Andrés Martinez, but to make a difference in Cuba, the president must end the embargo and unite Latin America against the Castros.

Obama’s tepid relaxation of restrictions on travel to Cuba for Americans with relatives on the island, announced yesterday, is a pitiful half-measure for a president otherwise known for bold policy shifts. The very logic deployed to justify the rollback of the Bush administration’s “enhancements” of the old travel ban argues against keeping any such ban or trade embargo in place.You know, it’s the same approach we use in engaging China and plenty of other undemocratic regimes throughout the rest of the world—a belief that the more we interact with them, flooding their countries with American goods, entertainment and high-maintenance tourists, the better off their people will be over time.

It’s the Cuban people, of course, who remain the victims of all this cynical political calculus taking place to their north and to their south.Cuba policy always seems to be about something other than Cubans still on the island.

Cuba is the canary in the gold mine as far as many Latin Americans are concerned, an indicator of American attitudes toward the rest of the hemisphere.Keeping the embargo in place is a signal that Washington will continue abrogating the right to treat Cuba as a purely bilateral, if not a domestic, matter—which makes us a bully to the rest of the continent.Earlier this year in Mexico, a friend noted that it was great that Obama had pledged to close Guantanamo, saying this act offered a new beginning in relations. But he was sorely disappointed when I clarified that the U.S. wouldn’t be closing the base, merely the brig holding 9/11 detainees. Nothing to do with Latin America… nada que ver.

In fairness, Latin America’s major democracies are equally guilty of doing what the United States does when it comes to Cuba—that is, deviating from their own values for domestic political reasons.Brazil, Chile, and Mexico are all led by presidents who, to varying degrees, have been victimized earlier in their lives by a lack of democracy in their societies.These countries are committed by treaty to a region where human rights and democracy are the norm, essential requirements for full membership in the hemispheric community.But when it comes to the Stalinist Cold War relic in the Caribbean, Latin leaders all act as if it is a swell place, and fawn all over the Castro brothers for standing up to el imperio.

Why? Because just like embracing a nonsensical policy toward Cuba is a means for American presidents to appease a domestic right-wing constituency, embracing a nonsensical policy toward Cuba is a means for Latin American presidents to appease domestic left-wing constituencies that still romanticize Che, Fidel, la Sierra Maestra, and all that.Indeed, if you are a pragmatic left-of-center leader like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil or Michelle Bachelet of Chile, constantly disappointing your more radical supporters on a host of issues, flying to Havana and railing against the embargo and embracing one or both of the Castro brothers is a fairly painless way of placating your left flank back home.

It’s the Cuban people, of course, who remain the victims of all this cynical political calculus taking place to their north and to their south.Cuba policy always seems to be about something other than Cubans still on the island. Obama should seek to change that, and prod Latin America’s major nations to lead the way in pushing Havana toward elections and political freedoms. But that won’t happen until the U.S. first drops the embargo.

Andrés Martinez is the director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation. Previously, he was the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, where he also presided over the newspaper's op-ed page and its Sunday opinion section. He has also served as assistant editorial page editor at The New York Times. He is the author of 24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas .