Principles for an Effective Cuba Policy

Like clockwork, Cuba policy is moving to the front burner again, as the U.S. presidential candidates gear up to prove that they are, indeed, tough on Cuban President Fidel Castro. For his part, President Bush has introduced a new series of policy measures aimed at tightening the stranglehold of the United States on Castro’s regime. Although the president’s proposals will undoubtedly appeal to the hard-line elements of the Cuban-American community, they will not achieve the very change that all those who care about Cuba seek. To foster democratic change, the United States cannot simply reinvigorate old tactics, but must go back to the drawing board and craft a new set of principles to guide a new policy.

Castro is a dictator who denies his people fundamental political and civil liberties. Those who clamor for change on the island report losing their jobs and access to goods and services. They are ostracized by their neighbors – under pressure from Castro’s local watchdogs – and do not know whom they can trust. According to Amnesty International, there are more than 85 political prisoners suffering in Cuban prisons, many of whom are detained far from their families, ill-treated by prison guards, and denied medical care.

President Bush’s new measures come from a special report on Cuba released earlier this month and spearheaded by Otto Reich, a controversial Bush administration official with a checkered Cold War past. Many of the measures are designed to keep resources out of the hands of the Cuban government. Others aim to fuel dissent on the island by limiting the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and by restricting the receipt of remittances to immediate family members. Other measures are intended to beef up the anti-Castro propaganda that the United States disseminates on the island.

Sadly, this effort to turn up the heat only reinforces a policy approach – characterized most prominently by the U.S. economic embargo – that has proven both ineffective and counterproductive for more than 40 years. U.S. policy allows Castro to blame his economic mismanagement on the embargo, and to justify crackdowns by arguing the need to protect his government from U.S. efforts to overthrow him. Furthermore, other countries are skeptical about U.S. policy toward Cuba, and see it as a reflection of domestic political interests rather than of sound objectives and strategy. Unfortunately, President Bush’s new measures will further erode goodwill toward the United States in the region, and cause others around the world to question our judgment and motivations.

An effective Cuba policy requires a fundamental change in focus, away from getting Castro and toward supporting Cubans to overcome repression and build their own democracy. A new policy should reflect the following:

It should be focused on the future. President Bush’s proposed measures reflect the baggage of years of ineffective efforts to bring about change on the island. A new approach to Cuba would encourage out-of-the-box thinking and demonstrate the United States’ willingness to consider new approaches.

It should emphasize engagement rather than isolation. For more than four decades, U.S. policy towards Cuba has focused on economic strangulation and political alienation. Yet with countries like China, the United States has touted engagement as a means to positive change. A new approach to Cuba should move toward a policy of engagement, both to deny Castro the ability to rationalize repression and to bring the Cuban people into the policy equation.

It should be international rather than unilateral. The current U.S. approach to Cuba has alienated the United States from the international community. A new approach would remove the issue of Cuba from the Havana-Washington-Miami axis, and promote cooperation among a broad range of countries, making it more difficult for Castro to blame the United States for his country’s problems and resist demands for change from within.

It must be tough. Castro is a repressive dictator who must be challenged. A new approach to Cuba would continue to demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and demonstrate a tireless commitment to promoting change on the island.

It should let Cubans drive domestic change. Above all, a new approach to Cuba would recognize that real change must come from on the island, and that policymakers must take their cues from Cuba’s democracy and human rights activists. Following on the release of the Reich report, Oswaldo Payá, the leader of a prominent grassroots democracy initiative, insisted that “it is not appropriate or acceptable for any forces outside Cuba to try to design the Cuban transition process.” It is time for us to heed the dissidents’ advice.

With 45 years in power, Castro enjoys the title of longest serving dictator in the world. The Cuban people certainly do not deserve more of the same from Castro. Nor do they deserve more of the same from Washington. Change is needed in Cuba – but to get there, we also need a fresh approach.

Nicole Mlade is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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