Is Obama out of options on Cuba?

The tone of U.S.-Cuban relations have taken a number of turns for the worse in recent days. The largest of these may be the arrest of an American contractor for distributing laptops on the island. Christopher Sabatini explains the significance of this for U.S. policy on Foreign Policy today:  Ultimately, though, last month’s arrest of ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

The tone of U.S.-Cuban relations have taken a number of turns for the worse in recent days. The largest of these may be the arrest of an American contractor for distributing laptops on the island. Christopher Sabatini explains the significance of this for U.S. policy on Foreign Policy today: 

Ultimately, though, last month's arrest of the USAID contractor demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Obama's much-heralded April announcement of opening up telecommunications with Cuba. In his speech, Obama called for a change in U.S. policy, allowing private companies to develop direct contacts with the Cuban people. It sounded nice, but unfortunately something got lost in the translation from presidential directive to governmental regulation to reality.

The final regulations that resulted and were released in September did little to advance any of Obama's lofty rhetoric. The sale or construction of telecommunications infrastructure to Cuba by U.S companies -- necessary to allow the famously antiquated island to have digital contact with the rest of the world -- is forbidden. Instead, what is allowed are donations, something Cuba already permits.

The tone of U.S.-Cuban relations have taken a number of turns for the worse in recent days. The largest of these may be the arrest of an American contractor for distributing laptops on the island. Christopher Sabatini explains the significance of this for U.S. policy on Foreign Policy today: 

Ultimately, though, last month’s arrest of the USAID contractor demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Obama’s much-heralded April announcement of opening up telecommunications with Cuba. In his speech, Obama called for a change in U.S. policy, allowing private companies to develop direct contacts with the Cuban people. It sounded nice, but unfortunately something got lost in the translation from presidential directive to governmental regulation to reality.

The final regulations that resulted and were released in September did little to advance any of Obama’s lofty rhetoric. The sale or construction of telecommunications infrastructure to Cuba by U.S companies — necessary to allow the famously antiquated island to have digital contact with the rest of the world — is forbidden. Instead, what is allowed are donations, something Cuba already permits.

Simply put, Obama’s plan is not enough to unleash the initiative and potential of private businesses to open up the island.

Also this week, Cuba bitterly protested their inclusion on a list of countries whose citizens will receive increased scrutiny when traveling into the United States in the wake of the Christmas bombing attempt.

The chances of  rapproachement also took  a hit from the U.S. side with the resignations of Senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan. Dodd, in particular, was an outspoken advocate of easing the embargo.

Thanks largely to the Castro brothers’ increasingly bellicose anti-Obama rhetoric, a parade of recent articles. But how much of the honeymoon was just hype. I suspect that blogger Fidel’s early praise of Obama’s election led many to think that there was more potential for change than there actually was. (After all, Ahmadinejad once said nice things about Obama, as well.)

Now that it’s fairly clear the Castro’s have little intention of enacting political or economic reform, and, John Kerry notwithstanding, there’s little congressional momentum to normalize relations for their own sake, Obama is left with relatively few options for changing the policy beyond relatively unconrtoversial steps like lifting the travel ban for Cuban-Americans, and moral-support gestures like agreeing to be interviewed by Cuban bloggers.  

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect anything more.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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