Is US failing to respond to reform in Cuba?

US-Cuban affairs dominated the confirmation hearing of Roberta Jacobson, acting assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, showing how "out of step" the US is as Cuba forges ahead with reform, writes blogger.

Javier Galeano/AP
Tania Duran (r.) and her husband Fernando Ramiro stand in their home which they have put on the market in Havana, Cuba, Thursday. A new housing law allowing Cubans to freely buy and sell their homes took effect on Thursday. The White House has not explicitly acknowledged that moves like this qualify as reform in Cuba.

For the first time in 50 years, Cubans will be able to freely buy and sell their homes. As news of this long-awaited and the biggest yet of Raul Castro’s slow-moving but continuing, irreversible economic reform campaign in Cuba reverberated on and off the island, policymakers in Washington are increasingly – embarrassingly – out of step with what’s actually happening on the island today. It's like the US embargo has become a wax feature at Madame Tussauds: questionably life-like and stuck forever in one moment in time.

As Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson appeared before a Senate committee this week that could make or break her nomination to become assistant secretary, the able career diplomat was forced further and further into the Cuban policy box the Obama administration has needlessly painted itself. 

Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio (R) of Florida on the administration’s policies toward the island, Ms. Jacobson repeated that the president's new, more open travel and remittance policies for Cuban Americans and other “certain, very clearly defined” travelers is intended to help foster democracy in Cuba. And, as have other administration officials in the two years since the limited US policy reforms began, she failed to forcefully and unapologetically insist that not only is exposure to Americans better for the Cuban people than is isolation, but that it’s good for the American people too.

Jacobson should have been armed with a sure-footed answer like this:

“Senator, the administration believes increased interaction with Americans is inherently a positive thing that will contribute to a growing sense of openness on the island that the Cuban people already are building for themselves. But just as strongly, we believe that, unlike the Cuban government for many years now, our nation has nothing to fear in letting our citizens travel abroad. We’re confident that these travelers not only bring and share our democratic values with them on their trips, but that they benefit from their studies, exchanges and worship, even and especially if they disagree with practices to which they are exposed while in Cuba.”

But because the administration has never boldly sold its Cuba policies, and has instead chosen to weakly defend them on an as-needed basis, the box into which officials like Jacobson must squeeze gets ever smaller. And it emboldens an unapologetic, almost authoritarian line of questioning from Mr. Rubio, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“But if our policy ultimately is to foster democracy, wouldn’t we, shouldn’t these groups be evaluated on the basis of what they would do to foster democracy? If a ballet wants to go perform in Cuba, if a sports team wants to go play – shouldn’t we analyze that at least to try to figure out what this would do to try to foster democracy?

Who are you going to get to see, where are you going to get to express yourself, what are you going to do when you are there that actually fosters our foreign policy towards Cuba . . . ”

Surely few Americans would feel comfortable with such a Big Brother-style inquiry into their personal and professional travels. Conducting the government’s foreign policy is usually something best left to its diplomats, not private citizens. It’s a painful irony that Jacobson says we hope these exchanges can take place without “the intervention of the Cuban government,” precisely as the long arm of our own government is, well, intervening in these exchanges. 

The smarter approach would be for the administration to finally acknowledge and encourage the biggest structural economic, social, and yes, even political changes underway in Cuba in decades, and to reframe our policy objectives and methods according to the clearly changing context on the island. Instead, we continue to be guided – and boxed in – by what we thought was inevitable in Cuba – total regime change – 20 years ago in the aftermath of the Cold War. The regime is changing, no doubt, as Raul Castro fights a corrupt and resistant bureaucracy, dialogues with the Catholic Church on human rights, and announces term limits for all high level government posts. But it’s not the sort of change we can create or for which we can take any credit in fostering.

As Cuba’s government forges ahead with its own necessary reforms, including, as Raul Castro himself has indicated, coming reforms to Cubans’ rights to travel abroad, America’s willful ignorance looks ever more dated and foolish.

--- 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.

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