For the 18th year in a row, the United Nations General Assembly is unequivocally calling for the end of “the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” And once again, the United States finds itself completely isolated from even its closest friends in the international community.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. President Obama is committed to a new course of multilateral engagement in which the U.S. reassumes its mantle of responsible global citizen. And in many ways, from the formal creation of the Group of 20 industrialized nations to rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council, the administration has not just talked the talk but walked the walk, earning the president a rather premature though welcomed Nobel Peace Prize.
Even supporters are disappointed by the excessively cautious steps this administration has taken so far to extend that “unclenched fist” to our closest island neighbor.
But when it comes to Cuba, it’s back to the same old story. All politics is local—in this case, Miami, Florida. Earlier this year, there was some justified hope that, after eight years of an increasingly onerous set of laws and regulations restricting trade, travel, and remittances between the U.S. and Cuba, Obama would fulfill his promise to try a new path of pragmatic but principled engagement. And winning Florida last November—despite losing the majority of Cuban-American votes in Miami—should have given the White House some elbow room to take some bold actions. But even supporters are disappointed by the excessively cautious steps this administration has taken so far to extend that “unclenched fist” to our closest island neighbor.
If anything, the president seems to have limited his options by locking himself in to a policy of mutual reciprocity that lets Havana determine the pace of progress in unfreezing 50 years of icy relations. On more than one occasion, Obama has reiterated his view that, in return for letting Cuban-American families travel and send remittances to their loved ones on the island, the Castro regime must take the next step toward better relations. He reportedly asked his Spanish counterpart, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, to tell President Raul Castro to get moving on democratic reforms. According to an unnamed U.S. official quoted in El Pais, Obama said, “We’re taking steps, but if they don’t take steps too, it’s going to be very hard for us to continue.”
Of course, the fact that financial donations from pro-embargo Cuban-Americans to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which happens to be led by pro-embargo Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have jumped six-fold since 2006 also may have something to do with this approach. It at least seems to reaffirm another old cliché: Money talks.
While a tit-for-tat policy may assuage the shrinking number of hard-liners in Miami, it is unlikely to have any effect on the intended audience—the Cuban regime, now ruled by Fidel Castro’s “younger” brother (78 years old) and a cohort of aged revolutionaries. Cuba has made it very clear that it is prepared to sit down and talk with the U.S. in a spirit of mutual respect, i.e., accepting the regime as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. Until then, it will happily promote the image of David vs. Goliath on the world stage. It is just too potent and too successful a narrative in winning friends for Havana to abandon, even more so now that its economy is in a shambles and it needs all the friends it can get.
Similarly, the modest steps the administration has taken so far are unlikely to get much mileage with the other group one would want to influence—the European and other allies who are rooting for a more multilateral, cooperative, and pragmatic U.S. policy on this and a host of other issues. Washington will have to do much more to begin turning the tide of international public opinion against the embargo. This does not mean the U.S. should abandon its defense of human rights for all Cubans. But it might want to change its tactics. Spain is touting its policy of quiet diplomacy as a better model for the European Union, which it chairs in 2010, and has a few, albeit meager concessions by Havana to back up its argument. The U.S., after 50 years of attempting to punish Cuba for its bad behavior, has none.
So a policy designed to isolate a small, poor Caribbean island has come around full circle to isolate the superpower instead. The lopsided U.N. vote reminds us yet again that it’s time for a change. If Obama wants to show the world he is prepared to lead in a new direction, there are a multitude of steps he can take to ease the embargo and improve bilateral relations without waiting for Congress to act. These include expanding licenses for people-to-people travel for educational, cultural, and humanitarian purposes; allowing more Cubans to travel to the United States; easing the licensing of tradable medicines developed in Cuba; reviewing whether Cuba should remain on the list of state sponsors of terrorism; and pursuing agreements on disaster relief and marine conservation. But something tells me that at next year’s U.N. vote, very little will have changed, in Havana or in Washington.
Ted Piccone is a senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at The Brookings Institution.