Burma sanctions should be model for Cuba embargo

The byzantine Cuba embargo in many ways ties the US's hands, says guest blogger Anya Landau French, so maybe it’s time to apply the Burma sanctions model – defend it or lose it – to Cuba.

By , Guest blogger

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    A Cuban food vendor in the center of old Havana is pictured in this 2010 file photo.
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As a Cuba policy analyst, I’ve given a surprising amount of thought to our policy toward the politically isolated, resource-rich nation of Burma (Myanmar) half a world away.  

That’s because I used to work for Senator Max Baucus, who in 2003, working with Senators Mitch McConnell, Dianne Feinstein, and Chuck Grassley, helped pass smart sanctions against the Burmese Regime.  At the time, Congressional supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to punish the regime for its crackdown on Suu Kyi and her supporters, but Mr. Baucus and Mr. Grassley made sure that the sanctions would not be open-ended.  With this new sanctions model, Congress would continue to exercise real oversight over the impact of the sanctions and of the Executive’s efforts to bring other nations on board.  (Here's what Baucus had to say when the sanctions were renewed in 2007.)

IN PICTURES: Cuba's economy

With the news that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be making an historic trip to Burma, now might be an interesting time for Burma experts to debate whether it was US sanctions, or Chinese influence (too much of it), or any other combination of factors that have led to Burma’s leaders to take steps that have registered as "flickers of progress" with President Obama of late.  But more importantly, over at The Atlantic, Joshua Kurlantzick has offered up “5 Ways to Tell if Burma's Reforms Are Really Working,” which could be helpful to the Obama administration in determining how far to engage the Burmese government.  After all, if the reforms continue and the administration wants to support them – and the leaders behind them – the president may wish to urge Congress to let the sanctions expire when they come up for renewal next summer.  And if not, he can urge their renewal.

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Unlike the maze of Congressionally-mandated sanctions against Cuba enacted over the last several decades, the Burma sanctions were designed to expire unless proponents make a compelling case to renew them.  The sanctions only last a year, unless Congress passes a joint resolution to renew them another year.  Imminent expiration of the sanctions means that Congress actually monitors and evaluates the effectiveness of its policy toward Burma every year, instead of leaving the sanctions in place indefinitely at the whim of the single most interested member or members of Congress, as in the case of the Cuba embargo.  With US sanctions always just a vote away from expiration, the Burmese government has a clear picture of the levers at work in the US government and a real incentive to take steps that would encourage US policymakers to scrap them.

But because the Cuba sanctions are open-ended and lack meaningful oversight, Cuban officials insist they can have little confidence that the US will actually take significant steps to improve the relationship even if Cuba does.

A case in point: two years ago, President Obama sent a message to Cuba’s leaders via our Spanish allies:

“ . . . [W]e understand that change can't happen overnight, but down the road, when we look back at this time, it should be clear that now is when those changes began.”

Few would argue over whether Raul Castro has since embarked on a campaign over the past two years not just of economic reform, but, as Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez argues, key political reforms – de-centralization, de-statization, de-bureaucratization, and enhancing the rule of law – that go hand in hand.  It’s not been speedy or perfect, and much remains to be done.

But when Raul Castro’s government released more than 50 political prisoners last year imprisoned in 2003 for their alleged cooperation with the United States (in fact, it released more than 100, all of its political prisoners according to Amnesty International, except those convicted of violent crimes), the Obama administration hardly acknowledged its significance.  Some may consider eased US restrictions on people-to-people and academic travel implemented this spring to have been some sort of response to Havana, but they certainly weren’t messaged as such.  Instead, they were sold as a more effective way to get around the Cuban government, reinforcing Cuban officials’ perception that all the US government is interested in in Cuba is regime change – hardly an incentive to serious negotiation.

And as the Cuban government has begun implementing numerous economic reforms – some more consequential than others – including, importantly, steps to legitimize the private sector in Cuba; after increasing space for diverse opinions in the nation’s official media; and after Raul Castro’s public endorsement for term limits, all developments one could reasonable qualify as “flickers of progress,” President Obama has remained unmoved.

Considering how politically charged US (regime change) policy is in Cuba’s domestic politics, it may be for the best that we just sit on the sidelines at this critical juncture.  But when the time comes for the United States to meaningfully engage Cuba after more than half a century, our byzantine embargo will in many ways tie the president’s, and lawmakers’ hands.  Maybe it’s time to apply the Burma sanctions model – defend it or lose it – to the Cuba embargo, where it’s sorely needed.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program. This post originally appeared at The Washington Note.

IN PICTURES: Cuba's economy

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