The End of Policy

January 9, 2015

On December 17, President Obama took bold actions to start unraveling one of the longest foreign-policy morasses in recent history. For nearly 55 years, we have kept in place a failed policy. In the early years of the Cuban revolution, we tried nearly everything to bring down the Cuban regime, including the imposition of sanctions, which over time became the most severe set of sanctions imposed on any foe.

If it wasn't always clear that regime change was the ultimate policy end, it became perfectly clear with the codification of sanctions under the Helms-Burton law that was passed in 1996, at a time when the once-powerful Soviet empire was collapsing all over the world.

It has been hard to understand how it is possible that the most powerful nation in the world tried and failed to topple a poor and ineffective government of a little island barely 90 miles from its shores. Excuses abound, but in the end, the economic incompetence of the Cuban government has been outdone by the strategic incompetence of the U.S. and its Cuban-American handlers in Miami.

Now, Obama has loosened the Gordian knot, but has not cut it. Cuba policy remains enshrined in legislation, and only Congress has the power to finally cut it loose and bring all vestiges of a failed policy to its end. As long as Helms-Burton stays in place, the stated objective of our policy will continue to be regime change. What's more, Helms-Burton requires Congress to appropriate tens of millions of dollars every year to be spent mostly on regime-change programs, like the one that landed Alan Gross in a Cuban jail.

President Obama and Pope Francis have wisely understood that treating Cuba more "normally" is the most effective way to lay bare the "abnormal" behavior of its government. They understand what most Cuban-Americans have come to realize -- a policy of isolation is counterproductive to opening closed societies. They have also shown an appreciation for the need to assist and support the development of a civil society in Cuba, and the knowledge that a civil society, by definition, cannot exist without privately generated economic resources.

But as things stand today, we still have a hugely contradictory approach; engagement on the one hand, while seeking regime change on the other. Such a policy still provides reason for the Cuban government to be defensive (code for repressive) and continues to disproportionately hurt the Cuban people.

Regime change can only be accomplished in one of two ways: One is to force the Cuban regime into an economic and political collapse. The other is to force the Cuban government to change so profoundly that it will no longer be recognizable as what it was. Regime change has its limitations. If we break it we own it.

Therein lies an irony: the tough sanctions that are intended to force change in Cuba actually prevent Cuba from changing. As Cuba is on the verge of a major and inevitable transition, it needs to change its economic model. Yet, that is precisely what the embargo does not allow. Cuba cannot embrace the markets and implement needed macroeconomic reforms when faced with the onerous sanctions of the embargo. It is precluded from accessing international financial institutions, and barred from its most logical market.

This incongruence needs to be considered as a new Cuba policy begins to take shape. An effective foreign policy needs clear and unambiguous objectives. Several fundamental and strategic questions need to be asked by the Congress and other policymakers. Among the most important:

  • Does our policy facilitate Cuba's embrace of open markets, or promote Cuba's descent into a form of oligarchic capitalism? Are there reasons to argue that "economies of abundance" are far preferable to "economies of scarcity" in promoting open markets?
  • Is forcing the Cuban regime and its hardliners into a corner the best way to defend human rights and deal with repression? Is promoting economic dependency on markets a better way to promote human rights than economic isolation?
  • Is the possibility of causing a government collapse in Cuba still a desired policy objective? What would be the consequences of such an outcome?
  • Should we be more concerned over the short term with promoting good governance in Cuba, or in promoting multi-party democratic elections? Are these distinguishable or not?

One thing is certain -- notwithstanding the actions taken on December 17, we will not have an effective Cuba policy until these questions are answered. Answering these questions does not mean that the U.S. has the power to cause Cuba to change, or that even if it had it, that it should do it. Washington should not midwife a future Cuban democracy. It needs to be homegrown. 

But it is clear that the U.S., being Cuba's most relevant neighbor, has an enormous ability to facilitate change and to help channel change in the best possible direction. The Catholic Church in Cuba, the entire chorus of Latin American nations, and the European Union have made it clear that they believe a cataclysmic collapse of Cuba's society should be avoided. Risks are plentiful. Narco-criminal groups in the hemisphere have their eyes cast on Cuba. No one, and certainly not the Cuban people, would benefit from an apocalyptic end.

Perhaps we should focus our policy objectives on facilitating change by removing obstacles to change, such as facilitating economic interdependence; helping Cuba transition while preserving effective state institutions; helping Cuban society morph into a civil society; and transforming "rule by law" into "rule of law" without having to descend into lawlessness in the process.

It is the end of the policy that truly matters -- the goal that it seeks. While President Obama took significant steps in the right direction to foster a transformation in Cuba, not a collapse, we still have a hybrid and dysfunctional policy -- a confusing, contradictory entanglement. Congress now needs to rise to the occasion to make our new Cuba policy truly effective. Cuba is today at a critical point. Time is of the essence.

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