Stiffing Havana

President Obama promised to reach out to Cuba, in hopes it would encourage reform. But now that the Castro brothers are actually following through, Washington is missing in action.

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In the high-stakes world of international diplomacy, bluffing is a seldom-seen practice — the stakes are simply too high to risk getting called out. But, that’s precisely what seems to have happened with the Obama administration’s stated policy of détente toward Cuba. Havana is making concessions, but Washington seems incapable of responding in kind. The United States may be fumbling away its best chance at influencing Cuba in the way that it has claimed to have wanted for decades.

It was nearly one year ago that President Barack Obama delivered a message to President Raúl Castro via Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: “We understand that change can’t happen overnight, but down the road, when we look back at this time, it should be clear that now is when those changes began,” Obama said. “We’re taking steps, but if they don’t take steps too, it’s going to be very hard for us to continue.” If Cuba proved willing to improve relations with the United States, Obama seemed willing to reciprocate.

Obama’s conciliatory message may have been on Castro’s mind as the Cuban government began making improvements to its much maligned human rights record this summer. More than 40 Cuban political prisoners have been released from jail in recent months. Dozens more might soon follow as part of the government’s unprecedented human rights dialogue with the Cuban Catholic Church; it’s the first such dialogue of its kind for the church, an institution that previously had been treated with suspicion, if not hostility, by the Cuban government. The political changes have been paired with sweeping labor and economic reforms that have, however belatedly, begun to liberalize the moribund economy: 10 percent of Cuba’s workforce will shift into the private sector by next year.

The ball, clearly, is now in the United States’ court. But so far, the Obama administration has failed to respond to the very concessions Washington has long demanded, and very recently promised to reward. Rather than greet the changes, Obama has replied with mild skepticism. “I think that any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we’ve not yet seen the full results of these promises,” Obama told Hispanic media at the White House Tuesday.

Washington and Havana remain locked in their 50-year dispute. The U.S. trade and travel embargoes have only gotten tighter over the decades; under President George W. Bush, tensions threatened to reach a tipping point. Obama has called the inherited status quo a failure, but most of the Bush policies remain in place today. (Some in Washington argue that Obama has already made significant gestures to Havana by easing restrictions on Cuban-American families’ travel and remittances to the island last year. But that change was more a gesture to Cuban-Americans in Miami — where he campaigned on a promise to ease Bush’s harsher restrictions on Cuban immigrant families — than it was any significant political concession to Havana.)

The Obama administration should instead be honoring the changes in Cuba by taking considerable steps of its own: A bold response by Washington will put the spotlight back on Havana to continue with its reforms. Obama’s choice isn’t between the status quo and a wholesale abandonment of the embargoes: There are many ways to craft a foreign policy that could help spur the economic growth needed to support the half-million new workers in Cuba’s fledging private sector. Only Congress can lift the Cuban travel ban entirely, but the president possesses broad authority to allow some Americans to travel freely to the island. Cultural and academic trips to Cuba by Americans are currently permitted under U.S. law, at the discretion of the federal government; the Obama administration could easily broaden the definition of such “people-to-people” trips. That policy would trace its roots to the successful citizen diplomacy with the Soviet Union that President Ronald Reagan championed during the Cold War. President Bill Clinton successfully enacted such a policy toward Cuba during his time in office, but it was rolled back by Bush.

But what if Obama chooses to do nothing or dithers so long that this historic opportunity to influence Cuban reforms passes? If the president fails to move now, after Cuba has apparently acted in good faith to the offer of an outstretched hand, his administration will lose credibility –not just in Havana, but among global allies that will see the president’s reversal as a sign of weakness, incoherence, and even dishonesty.

No one can say for sure, of course, where Cuba’s reforms will lead. But it’s clear — even to Fidel Castro in his most unguarded moments — that the old model just doesn’t work anymore. Raúl Castro’s reforms, deeper and broader than the limited Cuban reforms of the 1990s, signal that Havana is in search of a new system. It may or may not be the model America would choose, but if Washington wants to have any influence at this pivotal moment, the time to engage Cuba is now.

Anya Landau French is director of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation.