12:00 pm EST - 2:00 pm EST

Past Event

U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition

Thursday, February 07, 2008

12:00 pm - 2:00 pm EST

The Brookings Institution

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

On February 19, 2008, Fidel Castro, the man who inspired and directed the Cuban Revolution for almost a half century, formally resigned his position as Cuba’s President and Commander in Chief. While he is likely to continue exercising some influence behind the scenes, it is quite clear that Fidel’s brother Raul and others in the Cuban hierarchy will determine the direction of the Revolution in the 21st Century. The challenge for the United States and the international community will be to deal with Cuba’s emergent leadership in a manner that most effectively promotes a peaceful transition to democracy.

The objective of the Brookings’ Initiative on “U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition” – led by Brookings’ Vice President for Foreign Policy, Carlos Pascual and former Chief of the United States Interests Section in Havana, Vicki Huddleston – is to identify a strategy that has the greatest chance of advancing U.S. national interests and promoting a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Cuba. Brookings has brought together leading experts and opinion leaders  –  whose views span the ideological spectrum — to identify the critical components both internally and externally that should be considered in the formulation of future U.S. policies toward Cuba. While consensus recommendations are certainly welcome, the primary objective is to facilitate a process of dynamic learning.

To accomplish these goals, the project will conduct six simulation exercises designed to test the responses of several strategic groups of actors to a variety of scenarios. The first such exercise – dedicated to exploring the options of U.S. policymakers under two distinct sets of circumstances – was held with Brookings advisers and special guests on February 7, 2008. The results were briefed to the Department of State, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. The next simulation will focus on the Cuban hierarchy; it will be followed by simulations examining the Cuban American community, Cuban civil society, and the actions of the international community. A final simulation in February 2009 will replay the February 2008 simulations – comments from both are summarized below – with the benefit of the knowledge gained from the foregoing exercises.

The following is a summary of discussions that took place during two simulations played by two groups composed of Brookings advisers and special guests. A more in depth study will explore the rationale that influenced the participants’ considerations as well as a review of potential recommendations that would contribute to identifying the most effective United States policy options toward Cuba. This summary is intended only to highlight some of the options and ideas rather than provide a definitive analysis.

This brief overview of the first simulations does not represent the views of Brookings or a consensus view of those individuals who participated in the simulations. Rather it is a compilation of the diverse opinions expressed during the events.

“El Comandante is Dead”

In this simulation Fidel Castro was presumed to have died on July 28, 2008. Although long anticipated as a moment that would present Cuba and the region with historic and strategic opportunities, experts believed the current Administration would have remarkably few options for decisive policy action. Indeed, because dramatic changes in current policy are based on a quid pro quo in which the Cuban government must first make substantive progress toward democracy, U.S. policymakers would be limited in their ability to seize the initiative. The participants thought that the Administration would be very careful to avoid making any announcements or taking any actions that could be perceived as legitimizing the new Cuban leadership. Yet simultaneously, the Administration would be unlikely to strengthen United States’ isolation of Cuba, as doing so might inadvertently encourage a mass migration. The best advice the participants could provide given the narrow parameters of current policy was that the Administration reaffirm its commitment to freedom and democracy in Cuba. One group surmised that a public statement from the Administration might read as follows:

“The Cuban people deserve to be free. This is an opportunity for the people and institutions of Cuba to move toward fully engaging their country in the international community. The USG reaffirms its current policy and is ready to work with other members of the OAS to develop relations with Cuba based upon the principles of mutual respect, national self-determination, institutional democracy, and the rule of law.”

The experts who played this scenario emphasized that it would be important for the United States to work with the region in pursuit of its policy objectives. Attempts by the Administration to “internationalize” its approach to Cuba would have the greatest chance of success if based upon common principles of freedom and democracy. While unlikely to bridge all policy differences, sending a high-level delegation to Fidel Castro’s funeral might help the Administration open a space for renewed discussions with its allies in Latin America and the European Union.

There was considerable concern about the United States’ lack of information about internal events in Cuba. Greater regional collaboration was viewed as a crucial avenue for gaining more insight into developments on the ground. Players also suggested relaxing current travel restrictions on U.S. and Cuban diplomats and facilitating greater official contact between diplomats and the respective governments, especially on matters of serious concern such as migration, crime, and the environment. More contact with Cuban civil society by USINT diplomats as well as Cuban Americans could also help prepare the Cuban people to become “champions of democracy” by empowering civil society, grass roots groups, and human rights activists. Nonetheless, our efforts to empower the Cuban people should take care to avoid taking sides among competing groups.

Participants agreed that the Administration is well prepared for the possibility of a mass migration. It will also be important to work with foreign governments to help prevent militant groups or individuals from attempting to reach Cuba. The Administration should not, however, publicly call on the Cuban government to prevent a mass migration because doing so would appear to legitimize the regime’s restrictions on travel and control over its citizens.

A discussion about the seemingly open invitation the United States offers under its “Wet Foot – Dry Foot” policy underscored the sensitivity of this issue. Congress would be unlikely to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act that permits Cubans who have been “inspected, admitted, or paroled” to adjust status after one year to that of an alien legally admitted. Nor would the Administration modify current policy that allows all Cubans who arrive on US territory to be paroled into the United States, unless a migration crisis seemed imminent.

In conclusion, the groups thought that it was likely that the Administration would react in the manner outlined above. Although this would limit its options to pursue regime change policy or to engage with the transitional government, it would be consistent with international expectations.

“U.S. Strategy in a New Administration”

In this second simulation, the groups reviewed options for U.S. policy after the November 2008 Presidential elections. It was presumed that Raul Castro was firmly at the helm of the Cuban state. Importantly, this scenario also assumed that the Raul-led government had taken important, if still insufficient, steps toward economic opening.

Under such circumstances, participants recognized the need for a new dynamic to replace policies that have atrophied over a half- century of animosity and mistrust. But deciding whether and how to modify existing policies was rather like dropping an anchor in unknown water. Nonetheless, participants were able to successful identify several common principles around which to base a new policy approach:

  • U.S. policy should reflect US national interests.
  • U.S. officials should seek to “de-Americanize” its unilateral approach to Cuba and engage regional partners.
  • U.S. policy should take the initiative rather than being forced to await actions by the Cuban government.
  • U.S. policy should not reinforce Cuba’s authoritarian government, especially State security by prohibiting the flow of communications into Cuba.
  • U.S. policy should seek to diminish the influence of Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela as doing so would enhance the chances of democratic reform.
  • U.S. policy should seek to return sovereignty to the Cuban people helping to empower them.
  • U.S. policy should not take sides but support all actors interested in reform – both outside and within the Cuban government.
  • U.S. policy should continue to emphasize a hope that Cuba will one day embrace democracy, human rights, and economic development.
  • The United States’ approach to Cuba should be in harmony with its policies toward the region and the world.

Regardless of the conditions the new Administration encounters in Cuba, the region, and the world, these principles would allow the Administration to lay a foundation for a successful approach toward a transitional Cuban government. Having already explored the impact of the current status quo policy, the groups considered the prospects of incremental engagement – at a minimum returning to policies in effect from 1998 to 2003 that facilitated greater trade, financial flows, and people-to-people exchanges – as well as the possibility of moving toward a full normalization of diplomatic relations.

Many participants were inclined to predict that a new Administration would prefer incremental measures to sweeping policy changes. Such an approach would begin to empower the Cuban people, reduce the control of the Cuban government, and enhance U.S. international prestige. Some participants thought that a new Administration should seize the opportunity for a new policy dynamic, attempting to remove as many of the barriers to a normal relationship as possible. Others preferred to link removal of some sanctions to policy changes to reforms within Cuba. There was a strong feeling that reducing barriers to communications and information as well as establishing diplomatic relations could further United States interests in empowering the Cuban people by reducing their dependence on the Cuban government.

All participants agreed that United States policy must take into consideration the implications of Cuba’s as yet unexploited energy resources. If the projected 4.6 billion barrels of probable oil reserves in Cuban-controlled areas of the Gulf of Mexico are proven, within three to five years Cuba may produce as much as 350,000 barrels of oil a day. The normal 60/40 split with oil companies would make Cuba energy self-sufficient and allow it to sell the excess. In addition, within two to three years, Cuba may produce significant quantities of ethanol from sugar cane. If both industries become fully operational, the Cuban government can expect additional revenues of $3 to 5 billion per year.

These developments raise important strategic questions that U.S. policy makers will have to address. As Cuba’s leaders consolidate power and exploit the country’s considerable energy reserves, the possibility that Cuba will respond to United States demands further diminishes. Some participants felt that if the United States were to play a role in Cuba’s future, the time to act is now. Indeed, if oil and ethanol revenues become a reality, American unilateral sanctions could become irrelevant to the Cuban hierarchy.

It is increasingly probable that the next U.S. Administration will be dealing with a more economically viable country than the one we know today, one which has diversified its trading and investment partners substantially. And as Cuba opens to international commerce, the involvement of U.S. allies like Brazil might be encouraged as a way to decrease the influence of Hugo Chavez.

Nonetheless, as Cuba’s central government is strengthened and enriched by its energy resources, the vulnerability of the Cuban people to a “top-down” model of economic control could be reinforced. The regime’s ability to fund its monopoly on information, employment, and a myriad of social services would enhance the vulnerability of the average citizen to regime control. To counter this prospect, the U.S. and other governments might take some or all of the following measures to stimulate a “bottom-up” transformation that would at a minimum offer the Cuban people the tools to begin reducing their dependence on the government and enhance their ability to have a voice in Cuba’s future.

  • Reaffirm U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy by empowering the Cuban people in ways that make them less depend on the Cuban government.
  • Begin to dismantle the communications embargo that reinforces Cuban state security by allowing the free flow of information, communications equipment, and people, including support for educational and cultural exchanges.
  • Consider ending the diplomatic/security embargo through exchange of military personnel, talks on issues of mutual interest, migration, crime, and the environment.
  • U.S. policy should recognize its limitations but seek to stress its comparative strengths in its relations with Cuba. These include the potential influence of the Cuban -American community in a new Cuba and the settlement of property claims.