- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
For weeks now, the Obama administration has been leaking to reporters its intention to modify U.S. travel regulations to Cuba. Reportedly, the administration will announce the policy change during the current congressional recess to avoid political blowback (so much for the courage of their convictions.)
As a policy matter, the move simply returns U.S. travel policy to that which existed under the Clinton administration, fostering "people-to-people" contacts by liberalizing categories of citizens’ groups that can legally travel to Cuba. While religious, cultural, and artistic groups will now find it easier to visit Cuba, the changes most assuredly do not open Cuba up to unregulated tourist travel, which is the current Holy Grail of the noisy anti-embargo lobby.
In short, the new policy won’t move the needle much on U.S.-Cuba relations or in Cuba itself. It won’t translate into an economic windfall the Castro regime desperately needs nor are visits to Cuba by the American Ballet Theater likely to embolden ordinary Cubans to pressure for internal change anytime soon.
The biggest problem with the announcement is the timing is all wrong. Not only are any policy changes that could be construed as lessening the isolation of the Castro brothers’ barbaric and unrepentant regime counter-productive at this point, they muddy the real issues at hand.
First, there is the unresolved fate of American Alan Gross, who has been jailed in Cuba without charges since last December. His "crime"? Delivering internet equipment to apolitical Jewish groups in Cuba. The administration has made numerous demands for his release, but undercuts its position by broadening U.S. travel to Cuba at a time when an innocent American remains jailed for reaching out to Cubans outside the control of the regime. The totality of our bilateral relationship should be put on ice until Mr. Gross is unconditionally released.
A second factor contributing to the ill-timing of U.S. policy changes is that, over the past several months, the Castro regime has been under increasing international pressure for its ugly human rights record. Last February, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died as a result of 82-day hunger strike protesting his unjust incarceration. In addition, a group of Cuban women patriots — the "Ladies in White," mothers and wives of current political prisoners — have gained international attention for their weekly marches in Havana in support of their loved ones, despite regular interruption by regime goon squads. It was to distract from these events and other signs of widening public discontent that the regime recently called in the Cuban Catholic Church to broker the release of 52 political prisoners to be exiled to Spain.
Engaging in unilateral policy changes now serves only to assist the regime in changing this negative (and well-deserved) narrative and confuses what should be a stark, black-and-white issue: the regime’s unabated, systematic repression and abuse of its own people.
Lastly, by expending political capital worrying about our relationship (or lack thereof) with an unreformed, undemocratic Stalinist regime, we pay short shrift to our real friends in the region, those with whom we do have common interests and who are looking for the benefits of a productive relationship with the United States.
For example, today, there are two Free Trade Agreements pending in the region — with Colombia and Panama, signed in 2006 and 2007, respectively — on whose behalf the administration has exerted no political effort to securing approval in the U.S. Congress. These agreements are important to these countries to boost trade and foreign investment. And, just as important, they are demonstrations of U.S. support and commitment in a hemisphere facing Hugo Chavez’s unremitting, anti-American propaganda offensive.
To make matters worse, last month, the administration sandbagged another friendly government, Guatemala, by formally charging it with failing to enforce its labor laws under the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (signed by the Bush Administration in 2005). In the first case of its kind brought by the U.S. against a free trade partner, Guatemala — one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and under extreme pressure by narco-trafficking syndicates — must now endure a lengthy process in which it could end up losing benefits under the agreement and be fined up to $15 million. This is not how one treats friends, especially in an increasingly hostile neighborhood.
Clearly, fussing about with Cuba policy at this point sends the wrong message to the regime, the Cuban people, and our true friends in the region. What changes are needed today are in the Castro regime’s relationship with the Cuban people. Let’s hope the congressional recess passes without any unnecessary U.S. policy moves that serve only to divert the focus to Washington, instead of Havana, where it belongs.