National Security Network

Time to Change Our Cuba Policy

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Report 31 March 2009

International Economy International Economy Castro Cuba Embargo trade

After 50 years of failed policy, this week new legislation is being introduced in the Senate and the House to revise our policies towards Cuba and lift the travel embargo. This first step is long past due. There is almost universal agreement amongst foreign policy experts that our Cuba policy has been a failure. It has hurt America’s image and our relationships both in the Western Hemisphere and around the world. It has worked against our national security interests – interests that are no longer threatened in any serious way by the Cuban regime. And it has done economic damage both to the United States and to the people of Cuba. After fifty years of failure it is time for a change.

There is broad consensus that U.S. policy toward Cuba is in dire need of revision

  • “After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,' while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population.” – Senator Richard Lugar, 2/23/09
  • “I believe the time has come to say publicly what many Americans believe including many Cuban-Americans – our Cuba policy has neither served America’s interests nor brought democracy to Cuba. It has been an abject failure.” – Senator Chris Dodd, 9/8/07 
  • “In foreign policy, the embargo makes no sense. It doesn't do anything. It's quite clear we cannot starve Cuba to death. We learned that when the Soviet stopped subsidizing Cuba and they didn't collapse.” – Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, 5/13/08
  • “Cuba policy is long past due for substantial revision, and domestically there is waning support. Flooding Cuba with American tourists, journalists, and culture is the fastest way to promote change. I’d almost completely reverse current policy.” – Ambassador James Dobbins, October 2008
  • “I think in retrospect, knowing what I know since I left the White House, I should have gone ahead and been more flexible in dealing with Cuba and establishing full diplomatic relations." – President Jimmy Carter, National Security Archive, 1/22/09
  • “It’s long past time that we … get dramatic about Cuba, which could help us in the hemisphere. You can use this election as an opportunity to change. We’ve been in a rut that hasn’t gotten us anywhere.” – Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, September 2008
  • “If our policy has been to bring democracy to Cuba, it has failed on its face. Castro has outlived ten U.S. presidents. What have we accomplished with it? The answer is nothing.” - Gen. James T. Hill (Ret.), 5/20/08


Current US policy toward Cuba has damaged America’s image and hurt our relationships in our own hemisphere, and around the world

In a recent op-ed, Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell and Patrick Doherty expounded on the diplomatic shortcomings of US Cuba policy.  “Our Cuba policy is… an obstacle to striking a new relationship with the nations of Latin America. Any 21st-century policy toward Latin America will have to shift from the Cold War-era emphasis on right-wing governments and top-down economic adjustment to creating a hemispheric partnership to address many critical issues: the revival of militant leftism, the twin challenges of sustainability and inclusive economic growth, and the rising hemispheric influence of Russia and China. But until Washington ends the extraordinary sanctions that comprise the Cuba embargo, Latin America will remain at arm’s-length, and the problems in our backyard—Hugo Chavez, drugs, immigration, energy insecurity—will simply fester.” [Wilkerson & Doherty, 12/12/08]

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) report commissioned by Senator Lugar says a change in U.S. policy would withhold fuel to anti-American propaganda and support U.S. interests. “Latin American leaders, whose political appeal depends on the propagation of an array of anti-Washington grievances, would lose momentum as a centerpiece of these grievances is removed. More significantly, Latin Americans would view U.S. engagement with Cuba as a demonstration that the United States understands their perspectives on the history of U.S. policy in the region and no longer insists that all of Latin America must share U.S. hostility to a 50-year-old regime. The resulting improvement to the United States’ image in the region would facilitate the advancement of U.S. interests.” [SFRC, 2/23/09]

Jake Colvin, Vice-President at the National Foreign Trade Council, says policy shift would benefit U.S. foreign policy. “A diplomatic approach to Cuba would signal that the president is willing to pursue peaceful solutions to difficult problems, even if those initial efforts do not bear fruit immediately.” [Jake Colvin, NIF, 12/1/08]

SFRC report says Cuba policy hurts transatlantic relations. “U.S. policy [towards Cuba] is… a source of controversy between the U.S. and the European Union, as reflected in the perennial transatlantic debate over sanctions versus engagement, as well as in the United Nations, which has passed a widely supported resolution condemning the embargo for the past 17 years.” [SFRC, 2/23/09]

General James T. Hill, former Commander, United States Southern Command, believes that reforming the Cuba policy would deprive America’s enemies of a powerful political weapon. “The United States would begin to rebuild its image in Latin America, which it desperately needs to do, by recognizing we have a bad policy, and by stopping being hypocritical about it… We isolated [Cuba] and gave them a forum to blame everything on us. It doesn't make any sense to me.” [Gen. James T. Hill (Ret.), 5/20/08]

U.S. policy towards Cuba is bad for U.S. national security interests and diverts resources away from real threats.

SFRC report says that Cuba does not pose a security threat and reform of Cuba policy would serve U.S. security interests. “With the end of the Cold War… the Government of Cuba (GOC) does not represent the security threat to the U.S. that it once did... While Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela has intentions of influencing regional affairs, the GOC has not been positioned to ably export its Revolution since the collapse of the Soviet Union forced an end to Cuba’s financial support for Latin American guerrilla movements… In hindsight, the U.S. embargo has not served a national security agenda since Cuba ceased to be an effective threat to the security of the United States. Today it is clear that a reform of our policy would serve U.S. security and economic interests in managing migration effectively and combating the illegal drug trade, among other interests… The United States Government (USG) hurts broader national security interests by impeding cooperation with Cuba on matters of shared concern” [SFRC, 2/23/09]

Former Counterterrorism Czar Richard Clarke says that Cuba is no longer a state-sponsor of terrorism. “The reason in the 1990s, in the late 1990s, why we did not take Cuba off the [state sponsors of terrorism] list, was not because they were sponsoring terrorism. It was because of US domestic political reasons. Factually, objectively, they are no longer sponsoring terrorism.” [Richard Clarke, 9/17/08]

Enforcing the embargo siphons key US government resources away from fighting terrorism. “The Treasury Department office that governs Cuba travel, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, is also the key Treasury element in the effort to break al Qaeda's global money network. Its resources should be dedicated fully to fighting terrorism, not to duties such as licensing, investigating, and fining travelers to Cuba.” [Philip Peters, Testimony to Senate Finance Committee, 9/4/03]

Trade with Cuba would benefit the U.S. economy and increase the standard of living for Cuban citizens

American businesses support removal of restrictions. “We support the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba. We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon.” American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation and Grocery Manufacturers Association [Reuters, 12/4/08]

Current U.S. policy makes future ties with Cuba difficult. “In addition to supporting the Cuban people, the United States has a new opportunity to engage the Cuban bureaucracy and military and cultivate relationships with those who may favor economic and political reform. A younger generation of Cubans, who recognize the potential impact of a new relationship with the United States, is already being given more responsibility for management of the economy and society by 77-year-old Raúl Castro.” [Jake Colvin, 12/1/08]

Former SOUTHCOM Commander Hill says easing restrictions would be good for US business and good for the people of Cuba. “At least business could go down there. In the best of times there would be a democratic Cuba, ninety miles from Miami, that would become a huge trading bloc just for Miami alone. I envision for example large condo complexes in Havana with American retirees living pretty well, a ferry-ride from Miami, which is in fact the hospital center for Latin America. That would be good for Cuba. That would good for the United States. There would be a flow of goods.” [Gen. James T. Hill (Ret.), 5/20/08]

What We’re Reading

At the Hague conference on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Clinton calls for diplomacy mixed with military aid and civilian programs. She pledged $40 million for the Afghan elections, urged Afghan unity, and called years of failure of aid in Afghanistan “heartbreaking.”

The commander of the Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility for the weekend’s attack on a police academy in Lahore, and said that the group is planning a major attack in Washington, D.C. The attack indicates that the Pakistani Taliban has moved beyond the tribal areas.

The U.K. begins withdrawing from Basra as American forces move in to take over. A rebellious Sunni council disarmed following clashes this weekend, with promises of job offers from the Iraq security forces. A suicide bomber killed eight in Mosul.

Iran agreed to help curtail Afghanistan’s drug trade but is critical of the U.S. troop buildup. The Obama administration calls for destruction of the Afghan poppy fields, but officials call eradication counterproductive.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court restored Nawaz Sharif’s brother as chief minister of the powerful Punjab province.

Iran and Syria indirectly received U.S. nuclear aid through a U.N. program designed to support the peaceful use of nuclear power.

Arab leaders unite behind Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. President Obama urged Bashir to allow aid groups back into Sudan, and pledged that if Bashir did not, he would “find some mechanism” to get aid to Darfur.

A new poll gives President Obama a 66% approval rating, and the number of people saying the country is moving in the right direction has tripled since Obama’s election, to the highest number in five years.

France threatens to walk out of the G-20 if its demands for stricter financial regulations are not met. Developing nations will assume new roles of influence and responsibility at the upcoming G-20.

A prominent Chechen opposition leader was shot and killed in Dubai.

Israel closes its investigation of abuses in the Gaza war, saying that accounts were hearsay.

Hundreds are feared drowned off the coast of Libya after a migrant vessel sank.

North Korea will put captured U.S. journalists on trial for “hostile acts” and illegal entry.

Khmer Rouge defendant accepts responsibility and apologizes for deaths and torture.

Commentary of the Day

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discusses U.S.-Russia relations. He will meet with President Obama tomorrow.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul says that NATO can do better in Afghanistan.

An adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responds to President Obama’s Nowruz speech.

Gideon Rachman tells European leaders to get behind President Obama.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describes the humanitarian situation in Haiti.