In Cuba, low-hanging fruit for Obama

February 25, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

A look at a list of the foreign policy problems facing U.S. President Barack Obama could send the sunniest optimist into depression.

The Arab-Israeli conflict: no solution in sight. Afghanistan/Pakistan: the outlook is bleak. Iran and its nuclear plans: tricky. No easy wins here. Iraq: the war is not over.

But in the foreign policy landscape, there is one low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking — Cuba – and the picking has just been made easier by a report commissioned by the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and released this week.

Among its key points: the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the only Cold War policy still in force, has been counter-productive; U.S. policies are harming national security interests by impeding cooperation on such key issues as narcotics traffic; and the U.S. image in Latin America has been tarnished by Washington’s insistence that the region share hostility towards Cuba’s communist government.

That government, first under Fidel Castro and now under his brother Raul, survived the hostility of 10 American presidents preceding Obama. It has normal relations with most of the world. Washington’s lonely stand on Cuba becomes embarrassingly apparent once a year when the U.N. General Assembly votes on lifting the embargo. The last count was 185 in favour, three against – The U.S., Israel and Palau.

In much of Latin America, Cuba has become a romanticized symbol of a small country that has stood up to the American giant. That image is exploited to the full in the anti-American rhetoric of such leaders as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, whose appeal rests in part on painting Uncle Sam as an Imperialist bully.

“Latin Americans would view U.S. engagement with Cuba as a demonstration that the United States understands their perspectives on the history of U.S. policy in the region and no longer insists that all of Latin America must share U.S. hostility to a 50-year-old regime,” the Foreign Relations Committee staff report said. “The resulting improvement to the United States’ image in the region would facilitate the advancement of U.S. interests.”

Portraying normal relations with Cuba as something that serves U.S. national interests strengthens the case of a growing number of lawmakers and business groups who think it is time to remove the last vestige of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere. It would also provide backing for Obama if he were inclined to go beyond his campaign promises on Cuba — easing restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba and sending money to relatives there.


In the words of Steve Clemons, a Latin America expert at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, Cuba is “the lowest hanging ripe fruit on America’s tree of foreign policy options. Change is easy there — and overdue.”

There are two main reasons why Cuba policy has remained stuck in the Cold War, 18 years after it ended. For one, a succession of U.S. presidents expected that economic pressure on Cuba would topple the government and bring democracy to the island.

As importantly, Cuba has been as much a domestic issue as a foreign policy issue. For decades, the most determined opposition to changing policy on Cuba has come from the Cuban American community in Florida, a state which has often been decisive in presidential elections. No candidate has been willing to risk his campaign by offending the Cuban exiles, estimated at around 650,000.

But polls show that anti-Castro feeling is easing and the old guard of exiles is being replaced by a younger generation not as burdened as their elders by memories of fleeing the bearded revolutionaries who took power in 1959.

Obama won Florida last November, after a campaign during which he promised to ease restrictions on travel and cash remittances while saying the time was not ripe for an end to the embargo. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has described the embargo as “an important source of leverage for further change on the island”.

The thinking behind this phrase: Cuba must make concessions on human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of travel in exchange for the U.S. lifting the embargo. If not regime change in Cuba, then at least behavior change. Why this policy should work now when it has failed in the past is anyone’s guess.

And the argument is particularly difficult to make for Clinton after a February trip to China, a worse human rights violator than Cuba. She said disagreement with Beijing over human rights should not interfere with cooperation on broader issues. There’s no lack of broader issues in relations between the United States and Cuba.

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There is an incredibly huge difference between one being anti-imperialist and anti-American. If Presidents Chavez and Morales were corrupt liars, not working for their people, then they would not be called “anti-American”.

When Mr. Debusmann mentions “the anti-American rhetoric of such leaders as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia”, he is spreading disinformation and helping to create a grossly inaccurate picture of what is actually going on. That is something that dozens of American writers habitually do when they write of Chavez and/or Morales. As a result, countless millions of Americans believe that Chavez & Morales are “anti-American” when such is most certainly not the case. Those two heroic presidents should be treated with the truth and respect, rather than lies and contempt.

Posted by John O’Neill | Report as abusive

Cuba Libre……..
We have bigger problems to deal with.
I would think a “normalized” relationship would be less expensive than continuing to enforce an embargo.

Posted by mark | Report as abusive

I felt for some time it is past time to lift the embargo on Cuba and develop trade with the Island. Cuba is one of our closest neighbors and trade would be a great benefit to both nations. There are two reasons I agree with the opening trade and travel with Cuba: one, 50 years is long enough, if not too long, to carry a grudge over a few missiles from the defunct Soviet Union and two, we can affect more change in Cuba by visiting the island and trading then we ever will by continued hostilities.
Many of the nations that we fought wars against in the past are now our closest trading partners, I.e. Great Briton, Germany, Japan, Canada and Mexico. It didn’t take 50 years to forget our differences and start trading with these nations. The act of forging friendly relations with Cuba may open doors that may settle our differences with other nations. In short I say Bernd let’s do it.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

Normalization of relation with Cuba would be a great first step towards shaking off defunct old grudges. Too many Americans think we are enemies due to communism, and don’t remember that American corporations used Cuba as their little playground until Fidel came along. Being used as a playground was not very beneficial for the average Cuban so they boosted them out. In short corporate America has helped screw over the average Cuban and the average American past and present, we have way too in common to still be supposed enemies. The current embargo is just a legalistic act of terror against the Cuban people especially when things such as medicines only available from the US are denied.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

[…] a pretty good analysis written by Bernd Debusmann for in a Reuters blog, The Great Debate, dealing with the issue of Cuba — travel and the trade embargo. Debusmann argues that Obama […]

Posted by » Cuba: What’s to debate? | Report as abusive

I cannot believe that the previous writer would actually state that Chavez and Morales are not “anti-American.” Chavez and Morales would like nothing more than to see the destruction of our country and what we stand for: freedom!
As a Cuban-American, I agree with the Debusmann that the time is right to make changes in Cuba. Everyone knows that the embargo has not worked and the only people hurt by it are the Cuban citizens not the Communist regime.

Posted by Christine Munoz | Report as abusive

As soon as the embargo is lifted I’m booking my next vacation there. Unlike some other Caribbean islands, Cuba must be a perfectly safe place – their KGB (or whatever its Cuban version is called) keeps the monopoly to commit crimes strictly to itself, and ruthlessly weeds out all competitors. KGB isn’t likely to target dollar paying vacationers with violence – they’ll rather provide protection, if anything. And even though Cuba is a Communist republic, the US$ is the king there and reigns supreme. Mighty buying power of the dollar, balmy Caribbean climate, safe environment, and (judging by the photos) historic places worth looking at – what else one may wish for?

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I hope this is only the beginning of a more sensible US policy and a long overdue rapprochement with Cuba. For a look at a win-win-win proposal that could bring the US and Cuba closer as well as do a lot of good somewhere else, check out this post:

Posted by Circles Robinson | Report as abusive

No reason not to embrace Cuba! Now that our people have installed the Democrats in control we are very much closer to a form of Government like Cuba’s.
Not only that what’s no to like about Cuba? Finally we may be able to help them with some good stuff.

Posted by Vince | Report as abusive

It is a very interesting topic for me as being an Eastern-European. I was a baby when the whole thing started in Cuba and then my country was a “friend” of Cuba. Of course, it is much different to live in the neighborhoods of the Soviet Union or the United States. Cuba was far from the Soviets and Hungary was far from the US. Regardless which superpower is your neighbor it seems to be quite frequent in the flow of the history that the closest superpower first wants to take over its surrounding then all other. Every year, when Hungary celebrates the anniversary of 23 October, 1956 it always mentioned that the American support fell off because of Suez crisis. That freedom and born of a democratic regime was not very important in those days. My country had to copy the soviet stile for a half century and now we are facing to the serious problems of the free trading, consuming nice world. My people has lost its red chains and received some other instead. None of the regimes are perfect. There will be always suffer and poverty in the world. The only question is how we release them with hostility and wars or with responsibility and cooperation. Simply saying, with love that Lord taught us. I wonder why Americans forget how “America” was born. Why do they still think the small nations are not able to and have no right to decide their own ways?

Posted by Búti, Eszter | Report as abusive

As an immigrant from Cuba in ’59, I say, it’s about time. Contrary to the opinion of many of my fellow legal Cuban immigrants, the embargo has done nothing but entrench the regime of Fidel Castro. Finally, an administration has come along that hopefully understands the full picture, rather than being bogged down in political dogma.

As for those that would see a US style free capitalism there, no thanks. The island would be way better served by a socialist democracy, where education and health care are the responsibility of the government. Sweden, Canada, etc.

You’ve got to understand that some of the rhetoric of the Morales and Chavez are based on long standing antagonism to America’s imperialism in the region. These people down there are about done with American exploitation and colonialism. Just think about how long it took Americans to turn loose the British yoke, as a poor example. If one looks at the politico-socio-economic situation from their perspective, the sentiment is easy to understand., a NP-NGO has a great presentation on it called “Plan Colombia”, where good ideas are presented for sustainable solutions to many of the issues that dog relations between the US and countries of Latin America.

Posted by Al Reaud | Report as abusive


Posted by Al Reaud | Report as abusive

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Posted by Ebmeyer6w’s Weblog | Report as abusive

Obama must bow to reality. Cuba is no longer a threat to the U.S. and American businessmen are angry because the communist-ruled island is the only place in the world where they cannot set a foothold and Europeans have leap frogged them. Raul Castro might slide the door partly open to individual freedom and might release some people from prison. But that’s as far as he will go.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

Well it is good thing that USA steers away from any dealings with those terrible communists…China is what? Oh, nevermind.

Posted by John from Canmore | Report as abusive

Yo Bernd! Drop the embargo and you can bet your life that Cuba will become another narco-state like Mexico is busy developing. When the mayor of MexCity moves to the US, and the rest of them, one sees a pattern forming of abdication of national responsibilities by Mexican citizens leaving only the narco-terroristas to provide essential security and services, which is the case as we speak. They have the funds, the firepower and the determination. Then the invasion of the US is achieved by the two Mexican armies – the resident aliens who provide cover for the army of narco-insurgents, the so called immigrants. Nice work.

Posted by Edmond Clay | Report as abusive

John from Canmore, China is not a communist country, it switched to fascism some time ago. The recipe of fascism: a basically capitalist economy with state control of strategic sectors; authoritarian relations between the individual and the state; and virulent nationalism. That’s just what contemporary China has.

PS. I am not a commie apologist, but a conservative who likes to see things described accurately.

Posted by Oliver Chettle | Report as abusive

The Cuban embargo is clearly the most wrong-headed, counter-productive foreign policy measure in the past 50 years. Obama should scrap it, without further ado. It is, as the column says, low-hanging fruit.

But I guess he won’t. Obama’s re-election campaign for 2012 has already started and he won’t be willing to expose himself to the conservative criticism — I can just hear what Rush Limbaugh would say — an end to the embargo would bring. So, he’ll act like all the other 10 presidents Fidel survived. And let’s not forget – they were Democrats and Republicans.

Posted by Julio Saenz | Report as abusive

It won’t happen. Two reasons why:

1. It is a JFK policy and thus is Holy Writ to Democrats.

2. It is something Rush Limbaugh has been in favor of for decades. Anything Rush is for Obama has no choice but to oppose to avoid ticking off his owners, Soros and the Kos Kids.

Posted by Random Numbers | Report as abusive

I came to this country at the age of one in 1962. My self seperated for my family for 3 years. The pain still there but it is time for change how can I help.

Posted by Gabriel Herrera | Report as abusive

Normalizing relations with Cuba will do much more than most people realize. In criminal prosecutions in Florida, nothing could be done to deport Cuban citizens who had committed serious felonies. Also, the Social Security regulations provide that Cubans who set foot on American soil become eligible to Social Security benefits – without having ever paid into the system! Wake up America! This is a change we definitely need and Obama should have the ‘audacity’ to make. Heaven knows, it should be easy for him after everything else he and his Congress have shoved down our throats!

Posted by Kathy Thompson | Report as abusive

I agree embargo against Cuba should be lifted as soon as possible. thanks

Posted by ramona graves | Report as abusive

It will be great if embargo is lifted.

It is unexplainable how much respect and support the US loses due to its widely used double political standards.

These double standards should be so obvious to everyone in the world. The roles that America attaches to other international players and to itself are so subjective and so rough, that add nothing but rage in the rest of the world. Like Cuba, a little, poor, but peaceful oligopoly is the enemy; but Saudi Arabia or UAE, the absolute monarchies, with not even a closer freedom to Cuban, are close friends. China is a friend where all time communists let no one else to speak up; and Russia is an enemy which is the oligopoly, however with incomparably bigger freedoms.

Just recall Uzbekistan – one of the poorest nations and one of the most furious dictatorships in the world, killing and torturing its people, feeding even more to the nation’s poverty. However it is a close friend to America, opposite to any more democratic state in the region.
This is so much about American economic and political interest, and so little about freedom and democracy as it is conveyed.

America’s peace and democracy intentions are easily disproved by so many aggressive moves, like the one in stimulating anti-Cuban mood in Latin America. Or similarly stimulating anti-Russian moods down in Eurasia, like aggressively agitating Georgia to attack Ossetia, or Ukraine to push furiously for cheap gas.

It would be better for everyone and for the US, if the US plays its role a little more carefully. The less there will be double political standards the higher there will be the respect and support to the US globally. No doubt that the world needs the US as an icon of economic and political freedom.

If the US is consistent in this role, people of the world will follow the leader, celebrating it, matching it, listening and toppling its oligopolies happily and by themselves.

Posted by sergey | Report as abusive

Edmond Thompson,

What an amazingly arrogant mess of a post that was. Why do you think Mexican terror is at an all time high? Drugs, who buys and uses the drugs? Americans!!!!!!!!

What makes this possible? The fact that the US gov’t is too stupid to legalize andy drugs, especially marijuana. Legalize drugs and just like with the bootlegging gangsters of the past you’ll do away with the druglords from Mexico.

On the main topic yes of course we should talk and trade with Cuba, after our train wrecks in the middle east that include supporting Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Yasser Arafat our gov’t needs to learn we can no longer respectfully pull the “holier than thou” card.

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

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Posted by In Cuba, low-hanging fruit for Obama | Crash Survival Zone | Report as abusive

Why does US policy insist on bullying, railroading and punishing other nations that do not specifically adhere to its standards? It’s Old World thinking vis a vis the Monroe Doctrine that we have the “right” to exert influence – including blackmail – to reorder the self-deterministic outcome of, in this case, Cuba, to force it to go with OUR program. The paradox is that we play despotic and dictatorial games with other despots and dictators. Former Cuban dictator, Bautista, got his pants kicked by Castro for good reasons. In another corner of the world, the shah got his just desserts, too. And our knee jerk embargo response to those nations has succeeded in closing all lines of communication, fueling extremism and rampant terror.

Posted by boredwell | Report as abusive

Lugar is old and senile, he obviously is unaware that thousands of political prisoners are languishing in Cuban jails. The best thing he could do is retire and allow a young person with a FRESH MIND to take over his place.

Posted by george | Report as abusive