Ending the Trump administration’s hostile policies toward the Cuban government will help, not hurt, the human rights situation in Cuba, according to a report released Thursday.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas and the Washington Office on Latin America urge the Biden administration to engage with the Cuba’s socialist government. Their report states:
Engagement is a more effective strategy to advance the cause of human rights, political liberty, and economic reform.
Trump’s policy of hostility and confrontation made the human rights situation in Cuba worse not better. It aggravated the regime’s siege mentality, gave it an excuse to crackdown on dissidents and other independent voices, and provided a convenient scapegoat for Cuba’s worsening economy.
Below are excerpts from the report, “The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement.”
The Case for Engagement
The United States needs a new policy of engagement with Cuba that serves U.S. interests and those of the Cuban people.
The reasons for engagement are the same as they were when the Obama administration introduced its policy on December 17, 2014. The old policy of hostility had outlived whatever usefulness it may have had and was not working. It was not improving democracy or human rights on the island, it was not advancing U.S. geopolitical interests, and it was blocking progress on issues of mutual interest. Instead, the policy of hostility increased hardship for the Cuban people, alienated our allies in Latin America and Europe, excluded U.S. businesses from competing in the Cuban market, and opened the door for our global competitors Russia and China to expand their influence.
A new policy of engagement should be built on a framework of objectives that advance the interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people.
Engagement begins with constructive diplomacy that includes cooperation on issues of mutual interest and negotiations on issues in conflict.
To begin re-engaging the Cuban government, we must reopen the lines of diplomatic communication between the United States and Cuba that President Donald Trump shut down. Diplomatic engagement will reduce bilateral tensions, help avoid future crises, and advance U.S. interests on a wide variety of issues. Like it or not, many of the most critical problems we face in the Western Hemisphere are transnational—the effects of climate change, the spread of infectious disease, environmental pollution, narcotics and human trafficking, and migration. Progress depends on cooperation with our neighbors, especially near neighbors like Cuba. Even on issues where U.S. and Cuban interests conflict, like Venezuela, engaging with Cuba may be a necessary condition of reaching a solution.
Engagement is a more effective strategy to advance the cause of human rights, political liberty, and economic reform.
Trump’s policy of hostility and confrontation made the human rights situation in Cuba worse not better. It aggravated the regime’s siege mentality, gave it an excuse to crackdown on dissidents and other independent voices, and provided a convenient scapegoat for Cuba’s worsening economy. A strategy of engagement can strip away those excuses, create an international environment that makes it beneficial for Cuban leaders to allow greater political and economic freedom on the island, and foster a more vibrant civil society that will, in time, press for change. A strategic shift in U.S. policy will find broad support among our allies, most of whom are already pursuing policies of engagement, and would welcome a U.S. policy that makes cooperation possible, especially on human rights.
Engagement must include civil society– cultural, educational, scientific, and familial linkages that foster mutual understanding, reconciliation, and cultural enrichment for both peoples.
People-to-people contacts benefit the people of both countries, most especially the Cuban and Cuban American families with relatives on both sides of the Florida Straits. The cultural connections between the United States and Cuba date back at least 150 years and should be nourished, not starved. The Trump administration did its best to sever these connections, inflicting serious economic hardship on the Cuban people. Foreign visitors put money directly into the hands of Cubans through private restaurants, independent taxis, and rentals of private rooms. No other international economic flow except remittances has such a direct, immediate benefit for the standard of living of Cuban families. A vibrant civil society relationship will empower the Cuban people and lay the foundation for enduring reconciliation.
Engagement will facilitate commercial ties, expanding the market for U.S. businesses, raising the standard of living for the Cuban people, and encouraging economic reform.
Cuba and the United States are natural economic partners by virtue of their proximity. By easing restrictions on trade and investment with the Cuban non-state sector and with state enterprises producing goods and services that directly benefit the Cuban people, the U.S. government can help foster prosperity and greater economic freedom. Cuba is undergoing an economic reform process, slowly moving toward a more open economy—a change that the United States should favor, encourage, and support.
Engagement will serve as a counterweight to the aspirations that global competitors like Russia and China have in Cuba.
As U.S. hostility and economic sanctions increased during the Trump administration, Cuba has turned toward our global rivals, just as it did during the Cold War. Russia and China have both increased their economic assistance and investment in Cuba and begun to build strategic alliances. U.S. Southern Command has identified Russian and Chinese initiatives as one of the main strategic challenges the United States faces in Latin America. The United States has more in common culturally with Cuba and more to offer economically than either Russia or China if we pursue a policy of engagement.
Cuba is changing. A new generation of leaders, born after the 1959 revolution, is taking the reins of power. In April 2021, Raúl Castro will step down as First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, surrendering his last official position. The economy is changing. The reform process begun in 2011 has moved slowly, but accelerated in the past year, creating greater economic diversity and openness. Civil society is changing, spurred in large part by the expansion of the Internet, which has enabled people to create virtual social networks that are manifesting themselves in real world gatherings and, occasionally, protests.
The United States can have a positive influence on the trajectory of change, but only by being engaged. To continue the policies of the past or to simply modify them at the margins will leave the United States out of the game—isolated from its allies, isolated from ordinary Cubans other than small groups of dissidents, and isolated from the rising generation of Cuban leaders who will shape the island’s future.
Engagement accomplished more in two years than the policy of hostility achieved in sixty.
● The negotiations leading to December 17, 2014, resulted in the release of 53 political prisoners and a Cuban commitment to expand the Internet, thereby increasing access to information. Today, 5.3 million Cubans—nearly half the population—have cell phones and 2.5 million have 3G or 4G Internet access.
● Diplomatic relations were restored after 63 years, and in the next 18 months 22 additional bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest were signed, ranging from law enforcement cooperation to environmental protection (listed in the Appendix).
● The United States and Cuba began dialogues on human rights and property claims.
● Commercial relations were reestablished, with over 40 U.S. businesses signing contracts
with Cuba during the last two years of the Obama administration.
● Cultural and educational exchanges expanded dramatically. The number of non-family
U.S. visitors to Cuba increased between 2014 and 2017 by more than 600% from fewer
than 100,000 to over 600,000.
● Family ties between Cubans and Cuban Americans were strengthened. The number of
Cuban American visitors to Cuba increased between 2014 and 2017 by 27% to over 300,000. Cash remittances climbed to an estimated $3.5 billion annually, with another $3 billion in goods carried by visitors, fueling the explosive growth of Cuba’s emerging private sector.
A Roadmap for Engagement
A successful policy has to make both policy sense (serve the national interest and realistically match capabilities to goals) and political sense (have enough support from relevant stakeholders to be sustainable). We begin by examining some critical preliminary questions:
• Why should Cuba be a priority when so many other urgent issues demand attention?
• After four years of U.S. hostility, is Cuba still interested in better relations?
• What do key stakeholders think about this contentious domestic political issue?
• How can a new policy of engagement surmount the obstacles of Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan government and the unsolved mystery of the injuries to U.S. personnel serving in Cuba?
With this groundwork laid, we present a roadmap for a new policy of engagement, in three stages:
1. Repairing the Damage: In the first few months of the new administration, reverse the damage done by President Trump’s use of executive authority to “cancel” President
2. Taking the Initiative: Identify and implement additional steps to advance the policy of engagement to a new level using the president’s executive authority.
3. Finishing the Job: Seek to change statutes that have written sanctions against Cuba into law, constraining the president’s constitutional authority to direct U.S. foreign policy.
Why Should Cuba Be a Priority?
The next president will face an unprecedented confluence of crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst economic recession since the 1930s, and demands for long-overdue racial justice. Every liberal and progressive policy network in the United States will have an agenda of change to repair the damage done by Donald Trump. Why should Cuba be near the top of the President’s agenda? After all, Cuba is a small country that poses no real threat to the United States, despite more than half a century of antagonism.
There are several good reasons for the President to move quickly to re-engage with Cuba.
The first is the crisis in Venezuela, which is the most urgent humanitarian issue facing Latin America. The pressure it is putting on neighboring countries demands immediate action, and President Trump’s failed policy of regime change has only made matters worse. Like it or not, a political solution to the Venezuelan crisis will require international cooperation among actors with different interests, including Cuba and the United States. Re-engaging with Cuba is a necessary (though not sufficient) component of a workable policy toward Venezuela, just as it was a necessary condition for ending the conflict in southern Africa in the 1980s.
Second, the United States is scheduled to host the Ninth Summit of the Americas in late 2021, a decision-forcing event that will require the new administration to formulate its overall approach to Latin America, including Cuba, earlier than it might otherwise. Moreover, the Summit provides an opportunity for the President to meet Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel to underscore the U.S. interest in improving relations. That meeting would be most productive if the new administration has already taken measures to repair the damage done to relations over the past four years. The United States halted engagement; it will be up to the United States to take the first steps toward restoring it.
Third, re-engaging with Cuba is relatively easy. Because every sanction President Trump imposed on Cuba was imposed by executive authority, every one of them can be reversed with a stroke of the President’s pen. Most, in fact, could be reversed in a single package simply by returning the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) to their status on January 20, 2017. Other actions on the diplomatic front require inter-agency coordination, but the basic principles of re- engagement can be laid out quickly because they were well-defined during the Obama administration in the President’s October 14, 2016 policy directive.
Finally, Cuba is a high profile foreign policy issue, perhaps more so than Cuba’s intrinsic importance would dictate. President Obama’s 2014 opening to Cuba attracted global attention and praise as an historic event. One reason for Cuba’s high profile is the long history of crises: The Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, Cuba’s partnership with the Soviet Union, its export of revolution to Africa and Latin America, and periodic mass migrations. Another is the Cuban American diaspora, which cares deeply about U.S.-Cuban relations, whether for or against. Quick action to re-engage with Cuba will send the message that the President intends to have an active foreign policy, re-engaging with both allies and adversaries, and rebuilding U.S. stature in the world.
Is Cuba Still a Willing Partner?
A diplomatic tango takes two. In 2014, “the stars were aligned,” as Ben Rhodes put it; the United States and Cuba both had reasons to favor normalization. After two years of punishment by the Trump administration, is Cuba still interested in engagement? Cuba’s political and economic conditions have changed since President Obama and President Castro announced their intention to normalize relations, but the structural economic incentives that led Cuba to support normalization are still in place.
On the political front, Miguel Díaz-Canel has replaced Raúl Castro as president and will replace him as First Secretary of the Communist Party in April 2021. Castro’s prestige was such that he could decide to engage with the United States despite skepticism among some members of the leadership. Díaz-Canel is not likely to have the same authority, despite his titles, but Raúl Castro will retain some authority even in retirement. The Cuban leadership’s ambivalent attitude toward normalization is complicated by the loss of trust resulting from President’s Trump’s reversal of the gains made during the Obama opening. Cuban hardliners who warned that Washington could not be trusted were proved right.
On the economic front, Cuba is in much worse shape now than it was in 2014, principally because of the shutdown of the tourism industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although President Trump’s 2019 restrictions on U.S. travel had the potential to reduce Cuban tourism by 10-15%, the pandemic closed the industry entirely. At the same time, revenue from Cuban medical missions abroad has declined, due to Venezuela’s economic collapse and U.S. pressure on other governments to expel Cuban doctors. An estimated decline of 10% in Cuba’s 2020 GDP led the government to introduce a series of new economic reforms in July adopting a more market orientation in agriculture and strengthening the non-agricultural private sector.
The principal incentive Raúl Castro had for seeking normal relations with the United States was economic. His plans to reform the Cuban economy in the direction of market socialism, unveiled in 2011, have been difficult to execute in an environment of economic austerity and a perceived security threat from the United States. A better relationship with the United States held the prospect of more revenue from tourism, more remittances, more trade, and more foreign direct investment. The results from 2014 to 2016 indicated that these assumptions were correct; travel, remittances, and commercial contracts all increased. Tourism (post-COVID) and remittances will remain two of Cuba’s main sources of foreign exchange earnings for the foreseeable future, and the United States is an important source of both. Although Cuba’s leadership is changing and will be skeptical of U.S. intentions, the structural economic incentives that led Raúl Castro to seek normal relations with the United States are even stronger than they were in 2014.
Is Cuba a reliable partner? Will Cuban leaders keep their end of the bargain? The short answer is yes. Cuba has a good record of adhering to the letter of agreements made with the United States over the years. Cuba met the terms of the December 2014 agreement to normalize relations and of the subsequent bilateral agreements signed with the Obama administration, though most of them have yet to be carried out because the Trump administration broke off contact. Notably, throughout the Trump administration, Cuban leaders continued to insist that they are open to improving relations with the United States on the basis of mutual respect. Nevertheless, to overcome Cuban suspicions, a new U.S. administration will need to make a concerted effort to rebuild a measure of trust, which means taking the initial steps to re-start the process.