Cuba Isn't Libre Yet
By Peter Coy December 23, 2014
If the embargo of Cuba had been aimed at keeping the Castro brothers in
power, it might be judged today as the most successful foreign policy in
the history of the U.S. Almost 53 years after President John F. Kennedy
declared the embargo on all trade "in light of the subversive offensive
of Sino-Soviet Communism with which the Government of Cuba is publicly
aligned," the Castros are still ruling the island nation under the
banner of communism. They have outlasted Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy,
Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush, and most
of Obama's presidency. "These policies defy reason," Google Executive
Chairman Eric Schmidt wrote on his Google+ feed after a visit in June,
marveling that U.S. law prevented him from renting a hotel room for more
than $99 a night. The failed American embargo is as anachronistic as one
of those patched-up 1950s Pontiacs that still cruise the streets of Havana.
Anachronistic, however, doesn't equal "over." Now that a week or so has
passed since President Obama's surprise Dec. 17 announcement that he
will loosen restrictions on travel, trade, and banking, it's becoming
clear that the rapprochement with Cuba is incomplete and ill-defined.
For one thing, Congress hasn't lifted the embargo. The day of the
announcement, John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser of the nonpartisan
U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Obama was promising to make
the embargo as hollow as an Easter egg. A week later he used a different
metaphor: Change, he fears, "is going to slow down like molasses."
Here's the problem. While the majority of Americans and Cubans favor
better relations, change is opposed by polar opposites: elements of
Cuba's communist leadership, and the Cuban Americans who are committed
to driving them out. One of the latter is Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a former
Republican congressman from Miami who retired in 2011 to make way for
his younger brother. (Much like, ahem, Fidel Castro.) Díaz-Balart helped
write the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened the embargo. He says
it would be a mistake to ease the pressure on the Castros now that their
benefactor, Venezuela, is being squeezed by low oil prices. "People are
going to realize in the next months that there's no change in the law.
There's not going to be a change in the law," says Díaz-Balart. "It's a
lot of splash, but it's not a lot of cash."
On the Cuban side, President Raúl Castro is more of a reformer than his
ailing older brother, but he's moving at a snail's pace, and there's
virtually zero chance he'll meet the conditions for removal of the
embargo spelled out in Helms-Burton: release of all political prisoners;
scheduling of multiparty elections; independent courts, unions, and
press; and the expulsion of Fidel and himself from the government.
Castro faces pressure to toe the communist line from other
historicos—fighters in the Cuban Revolution—such as Ramiro Valdés, a
hard-liner who clamped down on the Internet as communications minister
and in 2007 said "the wild colt of new technologies can and must be
controlled." Then there are the potentially restive Cuban Revolutionary
Armed Forces, to which Castro nodded in his address to the nation on the
agreement with the U.S. by wearing olive-green fatigues bedecked with
medals. "He has to be very careful because of the army. It's more
powerful than the party," says Carmelo Mesa-Lago, 80, an economist who
worked under the Castros in the first flush of the revolution's success
but left in 1961 after the regime seized universities and newspapers.
This is not to take anything away from Obama, who's done more than any
president to establish normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The
countries will exchange ambassadors. His administration will ease
restrictions on exports of food as well as construction and
telecommunications equipment and begin to establish banking ties. The
U.S. Department of State will review whether to end Cuba's outdated
designation as one of four state sponsors of terrorism, along with Iran,
Sudan, and Syria.
After that, though, things get messy. Robert Muse, a lawyer
knowledgeable about U.S. laws relating to Cuba, argues that Obama has
latitude to do more. He says the drafters of Helms-Burton—rushed through
Congress in strengthened form after Cuban MiGs shot down two unarmed
planes flown by a U.S.-based anti-Castro group over the Straits of
Florida on Feb. 24, 1996—"inadvertently codified, froze in place, the
discretion for the president to license almost anything under the
embargo." He notes that Obama used that discretion to allow each
American visitor to Cuba to return with $400 worth of goods, which was
never before permitted. Argues Muse: "If he does it for refrigerator
magnets"—i.e., small sums—"he can do it for thousands of cases of Cuban
rum or boxes of cigars."
Source: U.S. Embargo of Cuba Not Likely to End Soon - Businessweek -