Shortly after Cuban blogger and pro-democracy advocate Yoani Sánchez visited the White House last week, she was asked by a TV Martí reporter whether she supported an unconditional lifting of the Cuban embargo. She responded, “I am not in favor of that. I think it is clear that there should be conditions, and moreover I believe a long process of debate must exist beforehand. We are already taking the first steps, but I believe we must keep expanding that.”

The second part of her response is the most refreshing. It echoes statements she has made in both New York and Washington D.C., where she has called for negotiations on the Cuban embargo with representatives from the U.S. government, the Cuban government, Cuban civil society, and the exile community sitting at the table. However, hardliners would have you believe that the key line of her response is that there should be no unconditional lifting of U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Talking about the Cuban embargo has always been a tricky enterprise. It is all too easy to fall into three treacherous traps that always steer the debate into stasis.

The first is calling for an unconditional, unilateral lifting of the embargo.

The second is using the blanket term “embargo” when referring to specific sanctions or legislation. Finally, there’s the catch-all phrase that saves its speaker from having to engage in thoughtful discourse: “It’s Cuba that needs to change, not the United States”.

Defenders of the status-quo are all too aware of these traps in logic, and employ them repeatedly to discredit critics of U.S.-Cuba policy and torpedo any meaningful debate on how to take a more proactive approach toward Cuba. They prefer to frame the conversation as a false choice — “Should the embargo be unconditionally and unilaterally kept or lifted while the Cuban communist party remains in power?” — because they know that as long as these are the only two options, business will remain as usual.

Not surprisingly, it is how both the Cuban government and hardliners in the United States insist on framing the debate.

It’s unfortunate, because as Cuba’s next door neighbor with its largest exile population, the debate we should be having is, “What can we do today to help empower the Cuban people and advance the interests of the United States?”

Arguing whether the United States should unconditionally and unilaterally lift the embargo is false choice because it ignores the possibility of replacing the failed “all or nothing” approach of Helms-Burton with one that specifically targets the abusers and empowers the victims, as opposed to blanket sanctioning both.

The term “embargo” is one that is often tossed around but few understand. Many argue that there is no embargo, since, subject to many restrictions, Americans can fly to Cuba, send money to friends and family in the island, and even sell foodstuffs and medical supplies to Cuban import services. In a purist sense, these people are right. What we have is not a true embargo, so much as a 50-year old morass of executive orders, sanctions, restrictions and legislation, many of which are redundant in purpose and have far outlived their shelf-life.

This framework has provoked more political entrenchment than change inside the island, and has resulted in multiple market anomalies that make all dealings with Cuba highly inefficient: exorbitant fees charged by a monopolistic charter flight industry; abuse of “people-to-people” programs by certain nonprofits enamored with the Revolution; and federally-funded civil society development programs that operate under the stated purpose of “regime change,” thereby branding its Cuban beneficiaries as mercenaries of the U.S. government.

Those who argue for conditionality often say “the embargo is the last negotiating chip we have to demand political and economic reforms in Cuba.” The problem is that Cuba sanctions cannot be used as bargaining chips under Helms-Burton, since it conditions the suspension of any and all sanctions on congressional recognition of a democracy in Cuba and the absence of the Castro brothers from power.

This “all or nothing” approach effectively places U.S. policy in the hands of the Cuban government, making it easier for Cuban officials to resist political reform and dictate the degree of American influence on the island. The worst part is that this policy isn’t even necessary to maintain sanctions on Cuba, since such sanctions could be managed on an individual basis by the Executive Branch, as it does with other adversary nations.

All Helms-Burton does is tie the hands of the U.S. government, denying it the flexibility to to respond intelligently to developments in the island. The clumsiness of this law cannot be overstated, yet it remains the bedrock of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

It is almost impossible to influence events in Cuba without having a presence in Cuba. While we waste time debating whether or not to “unilaterally lift the embargo”, countries such as Iran, Russia, and China are strengthening their economic footholds in the Island. Now more than ever, the inflexibility of U.S. policy has the ironic effect of hurting and delaying the very democratic changes it seeks to produce by continuing to strengthen the hand of reactionaries and opportunists, rather than reformers, within the Cuban government.

Yoani Sánchez’s visit to Miami next week presents an opportunity to embrace a sober debate on the current and future relationship between the United States and Cuba, and question the value of a policy that has failed to facilitate change for 55 years. A comprehensive review of existing legislation, particularly the counterproductive Helms-Burton Act, and calling for greater dialogue among the U.S. and Cuban governments, Cuban civil society, and the exile community, would be a good place to start.

Ricardo Herrero is deputy executive director of the Cuba Study Group. He lives in Miami, Florida.

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