To Effect Change in Havana, Support the Cuban People

We’ve all heard the stories about modern life in Cuba — menial wages, long lines for public services, fewer subsidies for basic necessities, restrictions on travel both on and off the island, vigilante committees that monitor and harass anyone who questions the regime. No doubt, life for the Cuban people is tough, and only getting tougher.

So why should the United States make it even harder for them?

For 50 years now, the United States has seen Cuba as the enemy, with a long list of laws and regulations codifying an embargo to show for it. Over the last two decades, however, as Cuba has sunk lower and lower on the list of countries of concern to our security, it has become harder to justify our outdated, Cold War notions of enemy and friend.

By any conventional measure, Cuba poses little to no security threat to the United States. Its active military has shrunk from an estimated 235,000 in 1999 to 50,000 10 years later. According to the State Department, the regime no longer has the resources to project power abroad. Its place on the official U.S. list of country sponsors of terrorism continues despite the U.S. government’s own conclusion that it provides no direct financial assistance to terrorist groups or armed struggle in the region or beyond.

Moreover, Cuba’s economy is in woeful condition. Its sugar industry has collapsed due to lower prices, the end of Soviet subsidies, mismanagement and lack of investment, sapping the potential it offers in the era of ethanol. Economic activity has suffered further from multiple devastating hurricanes and droughts. As a result, hundreds of thousands of public employees are being forced off the government payroll with little hope of productive employment in the near future.

As Cuba continues its inexorable decline, the United States has remained on the sidelines while others have stepped in to throw Cuba a lifeline. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela has led the way mainly through subsidized oil imports in exchange for Cuban medical services. China and Russia have also increased their trade, investments and direct aid, including a $6 billion investment from China’s state oil company to expand Cuba’s main refinery. Spain and Canada remain robust partners, particularly in tourism. And although remittances from Cuban exiles play an important part both in improving the lives of the Cuban people and generating revenue for the state, most reports indicate life has gotten noticeably worse for most Cubans over the last decade.

If anything, the United States’ main concern now should be the potential of a failed state just 90 miles from its borders. Given the austerity measures recently adopted by President Raul Castro, we should not be surprised to see an influx of Cuban economic migrants to our shores, reviving fears of the chaos and turmoil generated during the rafters crisis of the early 1990s.

In addition to preventing a sudden and potentially violent collapse, the United States has a fundamental interest in fostering a stable, prosperous and democratic Cuba, one that reflects the aspirations of the Cuban people to determine their own destiny, freely chosen through a fair, open and competitive democratic process. On this point, there is general bipartisan consensus in this country. The problem is there is little agreement on how best to support those aspirations with a small but vocal minority of legislators, particularly from Florida and New Jersey, demanding a continuation of the failed embargo policies of the past in the hopes the regime will collapse any day now.

It is hard to understand how a unilateral policy of isolation and punishment advances the cause of democracy and human rights in Cuba. Even in the bad days of the Cold War, the United States championed support to rights advocates behind the Iron Curtain while simultaneously conducting direct diplomacy with states in the Soviet sphere. When history eventually turns in Cuba, as it will, should we be on the side of the Cuban people who are fighting for a better future? Or will we be remembered for acts of aggression, denial and obstruction?

President Obama has stepped gingerly into this dilemma, despite initial promises of “a new day” in U.S.-Cuban relations. His April 2009 decision to expand travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans, restart migration talks and loosen telecommunications regulations was the bare minimum down payment on this vision of change. But shortly thereafter, Washington fell back into a tit-for-tat mode, allowing Havana to dictate the terms of normalization. Even when positive steps were taken by the Castro regime — the release of more than 50 political prisoners since July 2010, and major economic reforms that should reduce the dependence of the Cuban people on the state — the White House moved the goalposts, demanding more fundamental change as well as the release of a U.S. government paid contractor arrested for providing technical support to the small Jewish community on the island.

Now, with ascendant Republican voices in the new Congress, including control of key committees in the House by pro-embargo legislators from Florida, any hope for legislative action needed to lift other restrictions like tourist travel is dashed. This despite polls that show a large majority of Americans, as well as a significant majority of Cuban-Americans (67 percent), favor ending restrictions on all Americans to travel to our neighbor’s shores.

It was wise, therefore, for President Obama to exercise his executive authority and announce on January 15 that he will permit expanded exchanges between U.S. and Cuban academic, cultural and religious organizations. The rules also allow financial transfers of up to $2,000 a year from any American to any Cuban not in the senior ranks of the Cuban Communist Party — and more charter flights. These measures will open the door for direct people-to-people engagement, allowing Americans to serve as our own messengers for the kind of democratic and economic changes Cubans so desperately need. Not surprisingly, they were welcomed by a range of key actors, from the Ladies in White fighting for release of their loved ones jailed as political prisoners and other leading human rights dissidents on the island, to academic, business, human rights and religious groups in the United States. The hardliners were aghast, though what punishment they will seek to extract from the Obama administration remains to be seen.

At the end of the day, the future of Cuba rests in the hands of the Cuban people. Like oppressed peoples everywhere, they deserve the full support of the American people as expressed through acts of solidarity, dialogue, trust and direct assistance. That can happen only if both governments get out of the way and allow normal human discourse to flow between two peoples too long separated by history and mistrust.