Katrina vanden Heuvel
The sad irony of U.S.-Cuban relations is that Cuba, under the leadership of 83-year-old Raúl Castro, is changing rapidly, and the United States, despite President Obama’s promises of a “new beginning,” remains largely frozen in a self-destructive Cold War policy.
The fifty-plus year-old embargo of Cuba continues. The administration still lists Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The United States continues to sponsor covert activities — this time a U.S. Agency for International Development attempt to generate “smart mobs” through a secret text-messaging program — to help destabilize the regime. Ten presidents after the embargo began, U.S. policy remains dedicated to folly.
Meanwhile the world, the hemisphere and Cuba have changed. If anything, the embargo isolates the United States, not Cuba. Washington’s relationship with the region is deteriorating, corroded by its policy toward Cuba. With few exceptions, the left-leaning governments that govern across Latin America have normal relations with Cuba and scorn the U.S. attempt to isolate the little island. At the last Summit of the Americas in 2012, the presidents of Brazil and of Colombia, one of the few remaining U.S. allies, joined several other countries in announcing they would skip the next summit in 2015 if Cuba is not invited. And well they should, as the summits become increasingly irrelevant, with regional trading and political ties developing with the United States, not Cuba, on the sidelines.
My recent trip to Cuba, as part of the nation’s first educational exchange trip to that country, reaffirmed what Josefina Vidal, head of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, told our delegation in a wide ranging 90-minute conversation: “The U.S. is facing the risk of becoming irrelevant in the future of Cuba.”
The conservative Republican head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donahue, while visiting Cuba last month, reiterated the chamber’s call to lifting the embargo in his speech at the University of Havana. Donahue understands that the major victims of the U.S. blockade are U.S. businesses.
Cuba has just passed a new law facilitating foreign investment. A new rush is on. A Brazilian firm captured the major project of modernizing the port at Mariel. A Chinese company is building 34 wind turbines. And another Chinese company sells the new cars that are starting to be seen on the streets. A British developer has just initialed a deal to build a “luxury golf resort.” The European Union has opened a formal dialogue with Cuba on trade, investment and human rights.
The pace of change in Cuba is accelerating — and is visible on the ground. Paladares (private restaurants), tapas bars and even night clubs are sprouting up in private homes. When Obama rightly eased restrictions on the travel and remittances of Cuban Americans, visitors bearing gifts flooded the island.
Remarkable changes in sex education and official attitudes are apparent, with the state going from imprisoning homosexuals to launching campaigns against sexual violence, considering legalizing same-sex marriage, subsidizing sex-change operations and banning discrimination based on sexuality at the workplace. Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, the charismatic head of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, has become a renowned figure both in Cuba and across the world for her work in this area. Despite her government’s restrictions on political speech, Castro is an outspoken advocate for more open sexual discourse. When we met with her at the center, she expressed frustration at continuing official resistance to legalizing gay marriage and spoke of herself as a fighter — fighting for a new way of thinking about sexuality and supported by a growing Cuban grassroots network of activists.
Of course, Cuba faces severe challenges. The regime still keeps a heavy hand on the press and social media and, as I learned in conversations with a leading Cuban journalist, the recent Twitter scandal has made reform-minded Cuban journalists’ fight to modernize the country’s social-media infrastructure more difficult. Human rights are still constricted. The regime knows it has to change but hopes to maintain core advances (particularly in health care and education) that are the signatures of the revolution.
With foreign investment, expanding private enterprises and increasing tourism comes greater inequality and increasing tension. Yet, as veteran journalist Marc Frank explains in his fascinating new book, “Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana,” there is a “grey zone” — a significant segment of Cubans whom Castro is trying to win over with his efforts to modernize the economy.
Amidst all of these changes, the United States is fighting yesterday’s war. At present, Cubans are freer to travel to the United States than Americans are to go to Cuba. What fears or fantasies support that idiocy?
U.S. policy is frozen in large part because bureaucratic inertia is reinforced by the hold anti-Castro zealots have on our policy — most notably Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who represents Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). But these zealots are growing ever more isolated. Recently, nearly four dozen former government officials, diplomats, retired military officers, wealthy Cuban emigres and business leaders warned in an open letter to the president that the United States is “increasingly isolated internationally in its Cuba policy,” and called on the administration to act on its own to ease travel for all Americans and allow increased trade and financial exchanges. Even Hillary Clinton — who has a hawkish track record on Cuba — claims in her new book that she urged Obama to ease or lift the embargo, although she seems content with the minor reforms that were made Obama has said he needn’t wait for the Congress, he has a “phone and pen” to take executive actions. He could act now to negotiate with the Cubans the long-overdue trade of the Cuban Five (now three) jailed for espionage in the United States for USAID contractor Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba nearly five years ago for distributing communications equipment to Jewish groups. Obama could open up exchanges and travel for all Americans, while loosening financial restrictions.
In discussions with our delegation, former Cuban foreign minister Ricardo Alarcon noted that the fact the White House is prepared to negotiate with the Taliban but not its neighbor raises questions about how “rational” U.S. policy is. Sustaining a policy that has failed for over 50 years and 10 presidents, an embargo that has isolated the United States in its own hemisphere, a blockade that damages U.S. businesses and restrictions that constrict the rights of Americans — no, that doesn’t sound rational.
The experts suggest there is a window of time for the president to act — after the midterm elections and before the middle of 2015. The promised “new beginning” would be better late than never.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.