This week, Raúl Castro stepped down as Cuba’s president. His successor, Miguel Díaz Canel, has no memory of the 1959 revolution, and has never known a Cuba that wasn’t ruled by a leader named Castro. The new president will have to respond to the demands of a new generation of Cubans, who are eager to see further action on recent reforms, such as a modest opening of the private sector and the ability to buy and sell their homes, travel more freely, and more easily access independent news sites online.
Díaz Canel, who is set to become Cuba’s first civilian president since 1952, is a pragmatist who rose through the ranks of Cuba’s political system. He understands and follows the rules of Cuba’s political machinery. While no one should expect him to bring rapid, radical change to the island, neither is he “just a new useful idiot on the world stage,” as some critics have labeled him.
This transfer of leadership is a historic moment. However, the current policies of the U.S. government toward Cuba isolate us from opportunities to encourage reform. By maintaining minimum staffing levels at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and by enforcing restrictive travel and trade regulations against Cuba, right now the United States is headed down a path that is counterproductive and contrary to U.S. interests. An antagonistic U.S.-Cuba relationship only provides more fuel for anti-reformist hardliners in Cuba, making it politically risky for Díaz Canel to embrace the reforms that the Cuban people overwhelmingly want and need.
Change is coming to Cuba. The question is whether the U.S. government wants to stand on the sidelines while other countries take a leading role in engaging with Cuban society. A landmark agreement between Cuba and the European Union recently came into force, and Europeans businesses are deepening their engagement with the island. China and Russia are building economic and political ties. Meanwhile, we are standing with our arms crossed, watching from a distance.
It is not in our interests to marginalize ourselves as Cuba moves towards its future. Doing so eliminates any chance of the U.S government effectively raising human rights concerns before the Cuban government. And while the United States and Cuba currently collaborate on a broad range of national security and law enforcement issues, disengagement would only push Cuba closer to other actors. A chillier U.S.-Cuba relationship also goes against what most Americans want, and what many U.S trade and agriculture groups and both Republicans and Democrats have pushed for: more, rather than less, engagement.
By reducing hostilities and engaging in trade, travel and dialogue with Cuban society, the United States can make it easier for Cuba’s reform process to move ahead. That’s why an essential first step should be gradually re-staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana, given the FBI found no evidence of “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomatic personnel after completing four investigative trips to the island at the invitation of Cuban authorities. While U.S. and Cuban authorities should continue working together to investigate this medical mystery, the bare-bones diplomatic presence has put consular services at a standstill and severely limits the U.S government’s ability to understand what is happening on the ground at this historic moment in Cuba.
There’s no guarantee that greater U.S. engagement will move Cuba’s reform process along as quickly as some might like, or lead to some other specific outcome. However, as evidenced from some 50-odd years of failed U.S.-Cuba policy, standing on the sidelines will do nothing to help the Cuban people, human rights, or other U.S. national interests.
It is hard to predict what changes President Díaz Canel will implement. It is likely that the initial steps will be modest and that changes will be gradual. The United States can either acknowledge and encourage the prospects for change by working to reduce current tensions, or we can make it more difficult by doubling down on the current antagonistic approach. At this moment of transition in Cuba, the United States has a historic choice of its own to make — between the antagonism and isolation of the past, or the prospects for engagement and reform in the future.
Geoff Thale is vice president of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. Elyssa Pachico is WOLA’s assistant director for communications. Follow her on Twitter @Elyssa_Pachico.