President Obama could use a win

For more than five decades the United States has maintained comprehensive economic sanctions against Cuba, a remarkably enduring policy that a legion of thought leaders now agree hasn’t produced the desired results and is only making it harder to help the Cuban people move forward. The latest voice to join that chorus is former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who reveals in her new memoirs that she recommended to President Obama that he “take another look at” the 52 year old Cuban embargo.

Clinton’s narrative highlights the key flaw in our rigid approach. Her book offers a good example of what it takes to make progress in diplomacy. Heading into the 2009 Summit of the Americas, Clinton was confronted by a coalition led by Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, which fought to pass a resolution in the Organization of American States to allow Cuba to actively participate in the organization, from which it had been suspended since 1962.

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While it would have violated the organization’s principles of limiting membership to representative democracies, the resolution looked likely to pass, potentially disrupting the upcoming summit and handing the United States a significant political defeat. An unyielding U.S. position was doomed to fail, and the secretary recognized as much, so she found a third way. Through good old-fashioned diplomacy, she gained enough allies to alter the resolution so that it would allow the suspension of Cuban participation to be lifted, but only when it met a number of democracy-related criteria – to be negotiated – and Cuba would have to petition to regain its seat. The compromise quickly gained wide backing, allowing other nations to vote for lifting the suspension, but without ignoring the restrictions on political freedom on the island. The government in Havana rebuffed it almost immediately.

As Secretary Clinton writes, “in effect, the suspension remained in place. But we succeeded in replacing an outdated rationale with a modern process that would further strengthen the OAS commitment to democracy.”

Diplomacy is not an all or nothing, zero sum affair. For too long those who want to maintain and even tighten economic sanctions have furiously suggested that any moderation of our approach would be a concession to the government in Havana. On the contrary, rethinking our Cuba policy is simply acknowledging that our Cold War-era strategy is woefully outdated. In fact, we can both ease the current system of sanctions we have imposed on Cuba, and at the same time accelerate the momentum for reform on the island.

Just last month, I joined 43 other policy reform advocates and former U.S. officials in penning an open letter that calls on Obama to update our Cuba policy so that it reflects deeply-held American principles and provides trade and investment opportunities for Cuba’s rising entrepreneurs.

Secretary Clinton is right. The U.S. embargo only impedes our efforts to bring change to Cuba, and hampers independent small business owners—who could otherwise get more help from friends and family living on the mainland.

Over half a million Cuban entrepreneurs are opening bed and breakfasts, small shops, and offering services at market-driven prices in areas such as construction and technology. Raul Castro’s cautious but liberating economic reforms have begun to transform the socio-economic landscape on the island and result in the gradual but sure loss of the state’s control over all economic activity. We should be helping accelerate that process, not standing in its way.

Denying Cuba’s burgeoning entrepreneurs start-up money, Internet access and information is at the top of the agenda for hardliners within the Cuban government who fear losing any control.  The diminishing core of hardliners in the United States unconsciously mirrors that restrictive behavior.

Obama and his top aides surely know better. And they know he has the executive authority to do more to allow the American people, if they wish, to voluntarily support the Cuban people.

Increasing support for Cuba’s growing entrepreneurial class, and expanding the opportunities for Americans to visit the island, would only enhance our ability to guide the future course of events in Cuba in positive directions.

If those diplomatic realities aren’t enough, consider the shifting domestic political landscape. A poll released this week by Florida International University’s Cuban Research Center finds that a majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade county, 52 percent, oppose continuing the embargo, while among young Cuban Americans that rises to 62 percent. An even greater percent, 68 percent, according to the FIU poll, favor diplomatic relations, a number that skyrockets to an astounding 90 percent among younger Cuban-Americans. These numbers are generally consistent with an earlier poll by the Atlantic Council’s Arsht Latin America Center from February that found 64 percent of respondents in Miami-Dade favor a change in policy.

If the U.S. government can get out of the way and let the American people—be they travelers, traders, civil society leaders or investors—be our best ambassadors, we can make a measurable difference in assisting the Cuban people improve their economic opportunities, well-being, and contact with the outside world. That would be a win for them, a win for universal human rights, and a foreign policy win for the President. Right now, he could use one. 

Feinberg is professor at the University of California, San Diego, and (non-resident) senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  he served as a member of president Clinton's National Security Council. His most recent publication is Soft Landing for Cuba? Emerging Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes (Brookings, 2013).