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January 26, 2012

Get Real on Cuba
Posted by The Editors

CastrosThis post by NSN intern Ian Byrne.

During Monday night’s GOP debate in Florida, Brian Williams asked Mitt Romney what he would do as president if he received a 3 AM phone call reporting that Fidel Castro had died and “half a million Cubans may take that as a cue to come to the United States.”

Romney started with a hypothetical “thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land,” before offering up his policy prescriptions: “Now, number two, you work very aggressively with the new leadership in Cuba to try and move them towards a more open degree than they have had in the past.”

Sorry Mitt, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Fidel’s brother Raúl is in charge of Cuba’s leadership now and will be in charge of Cuba’s leadership after Castro’s death.

Newt followed with his idea of a “Cuban Spring”:

“I would suggest to you the policy of the United States should be aggressively to overthrow the regime and to do everything we can to support those Cubans who want freedom. You know, Obama is very infatuated with an Arab Spring. He doesn't seem to be able to look 90 miles south of the United States to have a Cuban Spring.”

Romney and Gingrich doubled down on their criticism of the Obama administration’s policies and calls for regime change on Wednesday. Romney remarked that President Obama “does not understand that by helping Castro; he is not helping the people of Cuba; he is hurting them.” Gingrich lamented that the Obama administration’s policy is "almost exactly the opposite" of what it should be.

The Obama administration’s new policies aren’t all that new, as Arturo Lopez-Levy notes in Foreign Policy:

“Obama's new policy restores the "people-to-people" contacts between the United States and Cuba that existed under Bill Clinton's administration, restoring the embargo exemptions for Americans traveling for humanitarian, religious, and academic purposes that were disallowed under Bush. More direct flights to the island -- albeit chartered ones -- will be allowed, and Americans now can transfer remittances of up to $500 per quarter, as long as they aren't going to the Cuban government or Communist Party.”

(A full fact sheet of the policy revisions can be found here.)

I’d challenge Romney to highlight how the administration’s policies directly help Castro and hurt the Cuban people. Wouldn’t hurt to ask how the trade embargo benefits the people either. If Gingrich asserts that the administration’s policy is all wrong, what can he offer besides drawing policy inspiration from Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher in leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, besides the film that has any and all a conservative has ever wanted?

Romney and Gingrich offer ambiguous and tired (see: neoconservative) policy options where “might makes right.” If Gingrich believes we can look 90 miles south “to have a Cuban Spring” he has failed all duties of being a historian or a scholar.

The Arab Spring was unique in that it was, well, Arab. Cuba is not the Middle East (I can’t believe I actually have to write that) and each possess different dynamics on the ground. I imagine the people of Cuba, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria all have the same yearning for freedom. But as we’ve seen in the Middle East and North Africa, each process is going to be different getting from point A to point B.

The administration’s current policies appreciate the limitations of what can be done. Lifting the trade embargo would require congressional approval and any Washington-Havana communication is out of the question as diplomatic relations are nonexistent.

Our decades long policy of isolation towards Cuba has failed. The guy in charge of Cuba’s last name is still Castro. If one wants to change U.S. policy, as the candidates seem so intent on doing, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from our recent policy towards Burma.

Anya Landau French, a Cuba policy analyst, writes that by enacting sanctions that expired within a defined period of time, the U.S. offered incentives to the Burmese government which planted the seeds for reform. Case in point: Washington will soon have a Burmese ambassador

Indefinite sanctions offer Cuba no incentive to reform. I imagine that Cuba sees little incentive in the prospect of being “aggressively overthrown” as well.

President Obama’s “people-to-people” policies circumvent the Cuban government and are able to operate in the constricted environment where U.S.-Cuba policy exists. If we are proposing new policy, let us take a page from the Burma playbook. If the GOP candidates want the Cuban people to truly experience freedom, perhaps they should propose something a little more groundbreaking than continuing the trade embargo. 

Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It has been a rather kooky 54 years.

Photo: AP via MSNBC


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