Only the Cuban people can bring about real change in Cuba — but the US can help

Only the Cuban people can bring about real change in Cuba — but the US can help
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Americans stand with the Cuban people and support their aspirations for political rights and economic opportunities. But our response to these dramatic events has been undermined by the highly partisan political environment in the U.S. If we are to have an effective response to the overwhelming will of the Cuban people for change in their system, we need to build a consensus in the U.S. on how to respond.

Let’s be clear about one thing:  No U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson has supported a military intervention in Cuba, and that is not on the agenda now. We already have severe economic sanctions on Cuba, limiting the potential to dramatically increase the pressure on the Cuban government. We cannot expect any measures we adopt to force the Cuban Communist Party to voluntarily relinquish power.  

One thing we can be sure of: Senior members of the party and their security forces will be the last to suffer economic deprivation from sanctions. The Communist Party does not rule Cuba because it is popular or effective but because it is feared and controls economic rewards. We can use a limited array of measures to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans, while we undertake a new strategy to encourage Cuba to transition to a more open society. 

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As several members of Congress have suggested, our efforts will be stronger if we act together with the international community, especially European and Latin American countries. These countries will not sign on to U.S.-style economic sanctions on Cuba that they have rejected on numerous occasions for many years. But we should not underestimate the impact that other collective measures could have. Examples include working with other countries to press the Cuban government in multilateral organizations, limiting official visits to Cuba and ending official economic support to Cuba for all but humanitarian reasons. 

We should also seek the cooperation of other democratic states that have diplomatic representation in Cuba to reach out to intellectuals and dissidents who are under pressure from the Cuban state. We should lead an international effort to develop a list of Cuban government security officials who attack peaceful demonstrators or who participate in the cruel treatment of detainees.

Cuba is a small country where anonymity is difficult. Taking names today potentially deters egregious acts by raising the awareness that those with blood on their hands may face consequences tomorrow.

It is also important to reach out to technical and administrative cadres of the Communist Party, who mostly have accepted membership as a necessary prerequisite to pursue educational and career goals. Our message should be that they have nothing to fear from a new democratic Cuba. They will have contributions to make as did their counterparts in the newly democratic countries of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism there.

Despite years of repression of religious denominations, Cuba is experiencing a religious revival. Religious denominations in the U.S. and elsewhere are anxious to provide humanitarian support to their counterparts in Cuba. The Cuban government insists that it be the conduit for that aid with little accountability for its use. We should support direct importation and distribution of humanitarian assistance by religious denominations in Cuba without state interference. We should also support efficient international maritime parcel post deliveries to private Cuban citizens that would lower the costs for shipment of non-perishable food and personal care products. Remittances from the U.S. are a lifeline for many Cuban families. We should explore electronic transfer of remittances to Cuba through international postal channels, avoiding the current military-operated agents. 

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Since the administration of George W. Bush, we have looked at ways of extending free internet access to Cuban households without going through Cuban government providers. Early suggestions such as using aerostat balloons were not economically or technologically feasible. New technology, including the ongoing mass deployment of mini communications satellites and commercial satellite TV and internet services, offer new options for the medium term that deserve our financial support. 

Absent the collapse of Cuba’s communist government, which does not appear likely in the near term, any changes that improve the lives of ordinary Cubans must be negotiated with the Cuban government. To do this, we need a senior U.S. diplomat in Havana with White House and congressional support.

Among the priorities is to obtain assurances that our diplomats will not be subject to attacks. With increased staffing we can also begin to process tens of thousands of qualified visa applicants, whose cases have been delayed due to staff reductions in Havana, to join their loved ones in the U.S. The Biden administration should, after consultation with Congress, select a charge d’affaires who could be dispatched quickly to head our embassy in Havana. 

To some, these incremental measures may seem insufficient or even a resignation to the status quo. We need to understand that it is not the actions of the U.S. that will bring long term change to Cuba, but the actions of the Cuban people themselves. In the meantime, our policy should be driven by how our actions impact ordinary Cubans.       

John Caulfield is the former chief of the United States interests section in Havana and the founder of the Innovadores Foundation.