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.

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...


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