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Close but No Cigar for the U.S. and Cuba

March 22, 2016

This week, Barack Obama became the first the U.S. president visit Cuba in 88 years. To be sure, his trip will mark a new milestone in the rapidly changing relationship between the two old Cold War foes. In the 15 months since the nations restored diplomatic ties, embassies have opened in Washington and Havana. Commercial air travel will soon be re-established, with up to 20 American flights daily to Havana and 10 more to other Cuban destinations. New Commerce Department regulations announced last week will significantly ease travel for Americans headed to Cuba while allowing Cuban athletes, artists and performers to draw salaries in the United States without needing to defect. And while Americans like Cosmo Kramer can't yet import Cuban cigars into the U.S., within limits they can smoke 'em if they got 'em in Cuba and countries in Europe.
Nevertheless, the outdated and increasingly counterproductive U.S. policy of preferential treatment of Cuban emigres is still the law of the land. And as President Obama acknowledged last week, 25 years after the collapse of the USSR, the decades-long American embargo designed to counter Soviet influence in Havana will remain in place for the duration of his tenure:

"Ultimately, in order to bring down the entire embargo that is going require congressional action. There is bipartisan support to do so, but it is not yet at a critical mass."
"My strong prediction is that sometime in the next president's administration, whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, that the embargo in fact will be removed, because it makes sense for us to be able to sell into Cuba, to do business with Cubans, to show U.S. business practices and how we treat workers and how we approach issues of human rights, that that will help bring about the kinds of changes that are needed."

As a quick glance at the data shows, there's little doubt that the majority of the American people stand with President Obama in tossing America's failed Cuban policy into the dustbin of history.

Since 1974, Gallup polls have consistently shown that more than half of Americans have supported reestablishing relations with Havana. (The only exception was in 1996, after Castro's air force shot down two Cuban-American civilian planes over the waters north of the capital.) Gallup's 2015 survey showed that 59 percent of respondents favored normalizing ties, letting Americans travel to the Island and ending the embargo. In July 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found rapidly growing support for improving ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Seventy-three percent favored the renewal of diplomatic ties, up 10 points from six months earlier. Those backing the end of the embargo jumped six points to 72 percent in the same time frame. By April 2015, Cuban-Americans backed Obama's diplomatic push by 51 to 40 percent.
The reasons behind Americans' strong support for Obama's change of course with Cuba are no mystery. Over 50 years of economic and diplomatic isolation failed to significantly alter or weaken the Castro brothers' hold on power. More importantly, what failed GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio called his "singular interest" in 2014--"freedom and democracy in Cuba"--was never the overriding objective of the embargo. Removing the Soviet threat was.

We know this because President John F. Kennedy, the man who first put the trade embargo in place, told us so.
No shrinking violet when it came to regime change in Cuba, JFK made clear that it was the Soviet threat to the United States and the western hemisphere--and not the Castro dictatorship per se-- that required the embargo. And when the danger from the USSR was lifted, so too could the embargo.
One year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and just four days before his assassination in Dallas, President John F. Kennedy told the Inter-American Press Association meeting in Miami on November 18, 1963 that the danger from the USSR--not the Castro regime per se---was the cause of the U.S. economic and diplomatic quarantine of Cuba:

It is important to restate what now divides Cuba from my country and from the other countries of this hemisphere. It is the fact that a small band of conspirators has stripped the Cuban people of their freedom and handed over the independence and sovereignty of the Cuban nation to forces beyond the hemisphere. They have made Cuba a victim of foreign imperialism, an instrument of the policy of others, a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American Republics. This, and this alone, divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible. Once this barrier is removed, we will be ready and anxious to work with the Cuban people in pursuit of those progressive goals which a few short years ago stirred their hopes and the sympathy of many people throughout the hemisphere. [Emphasis mine.]

Almost 53 years later, that U.S. policy long outlived the threat the brought it into existence. Unlike Washington, America's regional and global allies, including the Organization of American States (OAS), the EU and Canada, long ago noticed the disappearance of the USSR.

Simply put, the exigencies of the Cold War and the Monroe Doctrine no longer apply. Castro's Cuba long ago ceased being a dangerous client of the Soviet empire, one which gave up the ghost a generation ago. There are no Russian intermediate range nuclear missiles and no combat brigades in Cuba. There is no Marxist dictatorship in Jamaica, and no "red menace" in Central America. There aren't thousands of Cuban troops fighting in Angola. (There have been, however, Cuban doctors in West Africa, fighting Ebola.) And the thousands of Cubans who land on American beaches or cross over from Mexico aren't met with gunfire, but with the guarantee of a path to citizenship. Yet more than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States maintains its anachronistic embargo that helps keep the Cuban people in tatters and America apart from its allies in Europe and Latin America.
Nevertheless, the usual suspects among the shrinking Cuban exile community and the conservative commentariat are still calling for regime change. Ted Cruz (R-TX), whose father Rafael fought alongside Castro's force against the Batista dictatorship before fleeing the island in 1957, called President Obama's diplomatic opening to Havana "a tragic mistake." Cruz along with his fellow 2016 GOP White House hopeful Marco Rubio then accused Obama of plotting to return the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay "as a parting gift." For his part, the same Marco Rubio who pretended his parents fled Cuba after Castro seized power, called Obama's move a "victory for oppression" and a "precedent" which "places a new price on the head of every American." (Apparently, Rubio was confusing Barack Obama with Ronald Reagan.) Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the face of the large Cuban community in New Jersey, echoed those talking points in his 2014 USA Today op-ed:

Cuba is a repressive state, but it will now receive the support of the United States, the world's greatest democracy.
For compromising on bedrock U.S. values, we received zero commitments from the regime to change its ways, to hold free elections, permit dissent, halt censorship and free all political prisoners. We abandoned U.S. policy, while the Castro brothers' stranglehold on power just got tighter.

Writing at Politico, National Review editor Rich Lowry coughed up many of the same sound bites, while adding a few ironic ones of his own. Comparing Cuba to America's greatest economic and military competitor, Lowry declared "Our vast trade with China hasn't made the government there any less repressive (the hope that economic advancement will change it over time if [sic] a very long-term play)." After equating a crumbling Cuba to nuclear armed North Korea, Rich Lowry proclaimed:

If Cuba were a racist apartheid-style dictatorship rather than a Communist one, no one would be so eager to do business with it. Instead, the great and good celebrate as the welcome end of an era changes that will replenish the coffers of a Cold War regime that is stubbornly still standing.

Sadly for the National Review editor, there were no shortage of conservatives "eager to do business" with apartheid South Africa. Among them were the National Review and President Ronald Reagan.
In the face of growing domestic and international pressure, President Reagan nevertheless vetoed the 1985 Anti-Apartheid Act. At a time when the U.S. accounted for about one-fifth of direct foreign investment in South Africa, Reagan called the sanctions bill "immoral" and "repugnant." Yet it wasn't just American commercial interests but Cold War calculus that fueled Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement." "Defenders of the Apartheid regime" in the West, the State Department later acknowledged, "had promoted it as a bulwark against communism." Ultimately, both the House and Senate, joined by the likes of Mitch McConnell, overrode Reagan's veto. As it turned out, they did not want the United States by itself, apart from most of its allies and global opinion.
And until President Obama's announcement in December 2014, alone is where the United States stood when it came to its posture towards Cuba.
For 23 years in a row, the United Nations had voted overwhelmingly for a nonbinding resolution calling for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. As Reuters reported in October:

As in previous years, the only countries that voted against the declaration were the United States and an ally, Israel. The Pacific island nations Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained. The voting result was identical to last year's.

Leaders in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and other Latin American countries were quick to praise the establishment of relations between Washington and Havana. The Organization of American States (OAS), which had ejected Cuba after the missile crisis in 1962, greeting President Obama's with relief. Jose Miguel Insulza, its secretary general, called the decision one of "great vision on both sides, because this conflict, which has significant negative implications for citizens of both countries, has stagnated politically for too long."
That stagnation has hurt opportunities for U.S. companies and farmers, as America's friends and allies long ago ended their restrictions on Cuban trade. As the Brookings Institution reported in 2008:

By 2003 EU countries provided over half the tourists to Cuba, more than half of the 400 foreign investment joint ventures and was the largest single aid donor. In 2001/02 the EU was Cuba's largest trade partner. EU exports to Cuba amounted to €1.43 billion (44 percent from Spain, followed by Italy and France), while imports from Cuba stood at €581 million.

Outside of Venezuela, CNBC lamented in 2010, "The Netherlands and Canada are Cuba's primary trading partners, and Canadian and European tourists have been regular visitors since the late 1990s." And while the EU and Cuba began discussions earlier this year on a new, expanded trading relationship, American businesses remained on the sidelines because of the policy one senior Obama administration official called "an albatross around the neck of the United States in the hemisphere and around the world."
And that albatross didn't just foreclose the United States from reestablishing the natural, historic and preeminent commercial ties it once enjoyed with Cuba. At a time of growing right-wing, anti-immigrant xenophobia, America's dystopian policies give Cuban émigrés alone the "amnesty" so many Republicans say they decry.
As it turns out, the number of Cubans pouring into the United States by sea and land is rapidly increasing. As the New York Times reported in October 2014, some 25,000 Cubans including 24 year-old Leonardo Heredia arrived in the U.S. without travel visas in the past year:

He, like many others, is also an unexpected throwback to a time that experts thought had long passed: the era when Cubans boarded homemade vessels built from old car parts and inner tubes, hoping for calm seas and favorable winds. As the number of Cubans attempting the voyage nearly doubled in the past two years, the number of vessels unfit for the dangerous 90-mile crossing also climbed.
Not since the rafter crisis of 1994 has the United States received so many Cuban migrants. The increase highlights the consequences of a United States immigration policy that gives preferential treatment to Cubans and recent reforms on the island that loosened travel restrictions, and it puts a harsh spotlight on the growing frustration of a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba and the 1966 Cuba Adjustment Act--two anachronisms of American foreign policy--are once again having the effect of producing a new wave of Cubans fleeing to the United States. As Peter Weber explained in The Week:

Since 1966, Cuban immigrants have had special protections and paths to citizenship under the Cuban Adjustment Act. Cuban nationals don't have to enter the U.S. at a designated port of entry. There are no quotas limiting the number who can immigrate here. And under a 1995 adjustment to the policy called "wet feet, dry feet," all Cubans who make it to shore are eligible for legal U.S. residency after one year, and eventually citizenship. In other words: amnesty.

But these are not political refugees seeking asylum from the Castro regime and its Soviet paymasters, but better economic opportunities here. And more and more, the Cubans are not arriving, like Elian Gonzales, escorted by Peggy Noonan's magical "dolphins who surrounded him like a contingent of angels." Instead, they are entering in Texas, crossing the same Mexican border Republicans would close off to Central American children.

Mr. La O became one of the more than 22,500 Cubans who arrived in the United States by land last fiscal year -- most of them in Texas. That is nearly double the number who did so in 2012.
Some of those migrants flew to Mexico and then requested entry at the Texas border. Relaxed travel rules in Cuba now allow people to exit the country more freely, a change that experts say plays a part in the surge in Southwest border arrivals. Other people, like Mr. La O, made the first leg of the journey by sea to Central America or Mexico.

It's with good reason that Weber concluded, "there is one big exception to the Tea Party's opposition to 'amnesty': Cuba."

And that "one big exception" is causing some serious problems for the United States, Mexico and the nations of Central America. As NPR's John Burnett reported earlier this month, "Cubans' Free Ride After Crossing into U.S. Riles Mexican-Americans":

In 2014 and 2015, more than 67,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States. Sixty-five percent of them came through Laredo [Texas], far surpassing South Florida as the favored entry point. The days when the Coast Guard played cat-and-mouse with ramshackle Cuban boats off the Florida coastline are over. The current route winds overland through Ecuador, Central America, Mexico and, finally, South Texas. Last month, the border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was resolved, and 8,000 stranded Cubans were able to continue their journeys to Laredo...
U.S. officials acknowledge most Cubans now come to the U.S. for economic opportunity, the same reason that drives many other Latin American immigrants. Nixon Funes is a 24-year-old Honduran sitting in the courtyard of a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. When darkness comes, he'll attempt to cross the fast-flowing Rio Grande, evade the border patrol and make his way to Atlanta. He's envious of the Cubans.

Envious, with good reason. The U.S. has pressured Mexico to halt the flow of Cubans south of the Rio Grande, stranding thousands in Costa Rica and Panama. The result, the New York Times reported three weeks ago, is that in January, "the United States pledged $1 million to help provide temporary shelter, potable water, food, sanitation and hygiene kits to thousands of Cubans who were stranded in Costa Rica while trying to make their way to the American border." But the ones who make the journey through as many as 8 countries to the U.S.-Mexico border "are crossing the border here by the hundreds each day, approved to enter the United States in a matter of hours."

Part of a fast-rising influx of Cubans, they walk out to a Laredo street and are greeted by volunteers from Cubanos en Libertad, or Cubans in Freedom, who help them arrange travel to their American destination -- often Miami -- and start applying for work permits and federal benefits like food stamps and Medicaid, available by law to Cubans immediately after their arrival.

It's no wonder that tensions are building for the thousands of Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and other Central Americans--many fleeing out-of-control violence in their home countries--forced to watch as "Cubans breeze across U.S. border."
Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, whose congressional district includes the city of Laredo, warned that changes are needed to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act that makes it all possible:

"The people here are starting to feel resentment. They are asking, is it fair that the Cubans get to stay and the Central Americans are being deported?"

Especially when the new flood of arrivals which began in 2012 are not refugees fleeing oppression, but mostly immigrants seeking economic opportunity.
For his part, Rep. Cuellar has filed legislation to change how benefits for Cuban immigrants are handled and to repeal the 1966 Act altogether. While Marco Rubio has suggested he might be open to repeal, Ted Cruz remains opposed. And to date, the Obama administration has shown little interest in changing the status quo.
As he prepares for his March 20 arrival in Havana, President Obama assured CNN Español senior political anchor Juan Carlos Lopez that he has not abandoned the cause of democracy and civil rights in Cuba. As ABC News reported:

"During my visit, I intend to meet with dissidents, critics of the Cuban government, just as I did when I was in Panama, and I had the opportunity to meet with activists from Cuba," he said. "That was part of the deal for me to attend and have [Cuban President] Raul Castro there as well. And so we continue to press to make sure that over time we are widening more freedom for speech, assembly, religion, inside of Cuba."
The administration has said that the agreement to go to Cuba and meet with Raul Castro was contingent on Obama's ability to meet with Cuban dissidents without restriction.

But after 50-plus years of offering carrots and sticks to no avail, it's long past time to end both the restrictions on trade with Cuba and the special treatment of Cuban emigrants. While the U.S. has growing diplomatic and economic ties with communist China and Vietnam, there are no Soviet missiles or Soviet troops to monitor in Cuba. It's time to stop checking Cubans to see if their feet are wet or dry. We're getting close to the day when we can stop pandering to Miami's Little Havana and start engaging with a new one 90 miles away.
Close, but no cigar.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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