Who would be better for Cuba: Romney or Obama?

US elections always matter in Cuba, writes a guest blogger. The island has been under a half-century US embargo.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Few nations feel the fallout of a US election more than the island of Cuba, just ninety miles away, where millions have never known life without a US bloqueo, or embargo, hanging over their heads. 

During the height of the Cold War, bringing down the Castro government, which was closely allied to the Soviet Bloc, was a matter of national security. But after the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba no longer mattered.  As long as Cuba wasn’t exporting revolution, serving as a hub for narco-traffickers, or gushing US-bound rafter refugees, it no longer mattered whether US policy objectives and tactics were realistic, effective, or even in the national interest. 

From President Reagan to President Obama and the various Republican contenders who [have] sought to replace him (including presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney),  Cuba is a pit stop on the Florida campaign trail, and little else.  How else to explain Mitt Romney’s unfortunate “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” gaffe before a disgusted crowd of Cuban Americans during a 2007 campaign stop, when some careless campaign staffer must have thought it’d be great to throw in a  beloved Cuban expression to win fans in electoral vote-rich South Florida, but instead just fanned the flames of insult to injury by arming Romney with that famous Fidel Castro sign-off.  And of course, in the crucial election years of 2004 and 2006, President George W. Bush empaneled lofty commissions to plan every last detail of a Cuban transition to market democracy, and then update the plan, none of which has come to pass.  And though President Obama promised a “new beginning” with Cuba early in his presidency, it’s amounted to not too much more than a new beginning with potential swing Cuban American voters keen on visiting their families in Cuba whenever they like. It was Barack Obama in 2004, by the way, who said in no uncertain terms that it was time for the US to lift its embargo of Cuba.

Related: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

(On the flopped ‘new beginning’ some will point to Cuba’s imprisonment of an American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, for more than two years as the end of the new beginning. And while I think the Cuban government could and should show clemency toward Gross – and now a critic on the other side will say the US could and should show clemency toward the Cuban Five – one cannot ignore the reality that the Obama administration’s continuation and stubborn defense of USAID democracy programs beefed up under the Bush administration that snuck Americans onto the island without host country consent to break that country’s laws, whatever we might think of them, might have played a role, a big one, in all of this.)

Obama’s approach, precisely because it seeks to cater to a more moderate segment of Florida’s electoral pool, is less strident and more reasonable than that of his predecessor, who was instead maximizing the hard-line faithful.  And yet, more reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean Cuba matters more to the current occupant of the White House any more than it did to the last.  President Bush was willing to separate families, while President Obama seems oblivious to the historic changes in Cuba underway today, both because real events and impacts on the island aren’t the point. Domestic political advantage is. 

Perhaps that is why this pointed commentary from the internationally acclaimed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez – reflecting on Obama’s pragmatism and reminding us that while Cuba may not matter to the US, US elections always matter in Cuba – may not cause a much-needed course correction in a Romney or Obama White House come 2013.

Those who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode feel defrauded by these 'concessions' to Havana from the Democratic government. They are the same people who suggest that a hard line – belligerence on the diplomatic scene and economic suffocation – would deliver better results.

Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island, physically and socially wasting away until some point at which our civic consciousness would supposedly 'wake up.' As if there are not enough historical examples to show that totalitarian regimes become stronger as their economic crises deepen and international opinion turns against them.

No wonder Mitt Romney is a much talked about figure in the official Cuban press. His strong confrontational positions feed the anti-imperialism discourse like fuel to a fire.

Yoani Sanchez isn’t the first person to wade into this argument about whether the United States should continue to isolate and punish Cuba(ns) or to extend a hand, to achieve the results we seek.  But she ought to be among the most influential here in the US, where she is heralded for her trademark withering wit, so often critical of her government.  And yet, statements such as these from Sanchez, and many of the traditional dissident activists in Cuba who have long disagreed with US interventionist policies nearly as much as they disagree with their own government, tend to be answered with a chorus of crickets among US policymakers who claim they just want to free the Cuban people, apparently in spite of what they say would help.

One can only hope then that Sanchez is right, too, in her belief that increasingly, it matters little what the United States does in Cuba. 

[W]hoever scores the electoral victory will find Cuba in a state of change. The reforms carried out by Raúl Castro lack the speed and depth most people desire, but are heading in the irreversible direction of economic opening. Havana is full of private cafés and restaurants, we can now buy and sell homes, and Cubans are even managing to sell the cars given to them during the era of Soviet subsidies in exchange for political loyalty. The timid changes driven by the General President are threatening to damage the fundamental pillars of Fidel Castro's command.

Now, if only someone could do something about the pillars holding up Calle Ocho’s [in Miami's "Little Havana"] grip on US policy.

– Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, http://thehavananote.com, 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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