President Obama showed signs of insight and intelligence in declaring that the U.S. should "embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Addressing his critics, he denied any double talk and issued a challenge: "I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months." 2
The good intentions of the former senator from Illinois have not been in question. That is why he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. However, it is impossible to ignore the obvious contradictions between the rhetoric of the occupant of the White House and actual facts, particularly in regard to U.S. policy toward Cuba.
In April 2009, Obama stated his desire to seek "a new beginning with Cuba."3 "I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction," he said. "I am here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my Administration," he declared in announcing the lifting of restrictions on Cubans who live in the U.S. and have family on the island. However, they had to wait until September 3, 2009 for that decision to take effect. Now, Cubans can travel to their country of origin as often as they want (instead of 14 days every three years as before) and send unlimited remittances to their families (instead of $100 per month as before). 4
The Obama administration has also expanded the range of products that can be sent to Cuba to include clothing, hygiene products and fishing equipment (previously prohibited). It has also permitted U.S. companies to provide certain telecommunications services to Cuba (though it should be stressed that the legal framework for this has existed since 1992). 5
In September 2009, Bisa Williams, Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, traveled to Cuba to talk with Deputy Foreign Minister, Dagoberto Rodriguez. The two held talks on the restoration of postal service between Cuba and the United States, suspended since 1963, and migration issues. Williams’ visit, scheduled for 24 hours, lasted six days. This is the most senior official visit to Cuba since 2002. 6 The Under-Secretary of State took the opportunity to attend the historic concert given by the Colombian singer Juanes in Havana, attended by more than a million people. 7
While emphasizing these positive initiatives and the much less aggressive diplomatic language toward Havana, it is important to remember that current relations between the two nations have not even reached the status quo achieved under the Clinton administration. Moreover, Cuban citizens living in the U.S. who have no family in their home country still can not travel there.
The Obama administration, contrary to its constructive statements, has zealously applied economic sanctions against Cuba. According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department, since the Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, at least seven multinationals have been fined a total of more than six million dollars. However, all these violations were committed long before the Senator from Illinois took power. For example, in August 2009, the Australian bank ANZ was fined $5.7 million for carrying out transactions with Cuba through its U.S. subsidiaries between 2004 and 2006. Once again, the extraterritorial nature of economic sanctions has been rigorously enforced against a foreign entity.8
Furthermore, on September 14, 2009, the U.S. president decided to extend for an additional year the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, under which economic sanctions against Cuba are enforced. Following the lead of every U.S. president since 1962, he evoked the rationale of "national emergency". However, the annual renewal was not necessary to maintain economic sanctions, given that since the passage of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 only Congress has the power to remove them. It is unfortunate that Obama has not taken the opportunity, however symbolic, to act differently from his predecessors. 9
On September 21, 2009, the U.S. State Department refused to grant a visa to the president of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, who was invited by Barbara Lee, president of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. The next day, Washington stopped about 30 U.S. doctors from participating in the International Congress on Orthopedics in Havana. In October 2009, the New York Philharmonic, which was slated to appear in Havana from October 30 to November 2, had to cancel its trip after the State Department and the Treasury Department refused to grant licenses to some 150 sponsors who had financed the project. Yet, in 2008, the Philharmonic performed in North Korea and will soon hold a concert in Vietnam.10
Sen. Byron Dorgan expressed his total dismay during a speech to the Senate: "This is almost unbelievable what we are still doing with respect to travel policy with Cuba… We are going through this nonsense of having the federal government and the Treasury Department tell us who can and who can’t travel. Restricting the liberty and the freedom of the American people, it’s outrageous, in my judgment." 11
On October 1, 2009, several congressional leaders met at the House of Representatives in order to promote the passage of legislation introduced in March 2009 to end the ban on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and demand the changes promised by President Obama. Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel and Bill Delahunt and Republican Rep. Jeff Flake demanded the law be adopted before the end of 2009. To pass, the proposed legislation must have 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate; it currently has the support of 181 Representatives and 33 Senators. However, Barack Obama has the authority needed to end the ban by signing a simple executive order. 12
Wayne S. Smith, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, deplored the lack of initiatives from the new president. "He has done nothing," Smith lamented. He also criticized the attitude of some representatives, such as Bob Menendez and others from Florida, who ‘blocks the legislation.’ "We should begin a dialogue and lift travel restrictions" for U.S. citizens, who can travel to China, Vietnam or North Korea but not to Cuba. 13
Cuban diplomats have also expressed their disappointment. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who welcomed the goodwill of Obama and called him "a modern politician, intelligent and full of good intentions," nevertheless lamented his failure to seize the "historic opportunity to use his executive powers or lead the way to the elimination of the Cuban blockade." 14
Inevitably, Obama must confront his own contradictions. First, in front of the UN General Assembly, he made the following statement: "The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history." Then, he resorted to a 1917 wartime law, now applied only to Cuba, to extend the state of siege against that small Third World nation which has never committed any aggression against the United States. He also stated that "the traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War." Yet he persists in pursuing an outdated, cruel and ineffective policy whose primary victims are the most vulnerable sectors of the Cuban population, namely women, the elderly and children. 15
The Obama administration continues to apply anachronistic unilateral economic sanctions which are the major barriers to economic development on the island, despite the unanimous opposition of the international community which, in 2008, condemned for the seventeenth consecutive time the economic siege imposed on Cuba (185 votes to 3); despite U.S. companies which see their interests seriously affected as a natural market remains in the hands of European, Asian and Latin American multinationals; despite the will of the majority of the U.S. American public who want normal relations between both nations; and despite a favorable environment in Congress for a change of policy. Even though it is true that the president can not entirely eliminate the embargo (which requires Congressional action), he can alleviate it considerably by executive decisions and licenses. 16
For his part, former President Bill Clinton, whose wife Hillary Clinton is now Secretary of State, called the policy of economic sanctions "absurd" and a "total failure." Meanwhile, since their introduction in August 1960, U.S. sanctions have cost the Cuban economy a trifling 96 billion dollars. 17
Havana has repeatedly expressed its readiness to resolve all disputes that divide the two countries on the condition that dialogue takes place on a basis of reciprocity, respect for sovereignty, and noninterference in internal affairs.
If President Obama wants to achieve a modus vivendi with the Cuban government, he should take the following steps in order of priority:
- Release the five Cuban political prisoners incarcerated in the U.S. since 1998 and wrongly accused of conspiracy to commit espionage. No evidence has been presented against them. Nevertheless, they were sentenced to a total of four life sentences plus 77 years in prison. Obama has the necessary discretion to grant them presidential pardons. 18
- Ease economic sanctions. As I said before, Obama can greatly reduce the impact of sanctions through simple executive orders.
- Extradite Luis Posada Carriles, the former CIA agent responsible for more than a hundred murders who has taken refuge in Miami and who the U.S. refuses to put on trial for those crimes. 19
- Remove Cuba from the U.S. list of terrorist countries. The U.S. arbitrarily included Cuba in its list of terrorist countries to justify its hostile policy toward Havana. The international community does not take this listing seriously and views it as a mere political stunt to discredit Cuba. It is worth recalling that Nelson Mandela was on the same list until July 2008.
- Eliminate the Cuban Adjustment Act which encourages illegal emigration to the United States. In fact, any Cuban who enters the U.S. legally or illegally automatically receives permanent resident status after one year as well as a variety of assistance in obtaining housing and employment. This legislation is unique in the world and promotes a brain drain which deprives Cuba of significant human capital. 20
- Cancel all grant programs supporting the internal opposition in Cuba. Obama can end the funding of internal factions, which is illegal under the Cuban penal code and international law. 21
- Eliminate subversive broadcasts by Radio and TV Marti, aimed at destabilizing the Cuban government.
- Return the naval base at Guantanamo, illegally occupied by the United States since 1902, against the sovereign will of the Cuban people.
The good will of President Obama should quickly be translated into concrete actions toward normalizing relations between Havana and Washington. Obama should show the world that he actually deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
(Translated from Spanish to English by David Brookbank)
1 Barack Obama, « Remarks By the President of the United States to the United Nations General Assembly », The White House, 23 septembre 2009. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-to-the-United-Nations-General-Assembly/ (site consulted September 24, 2009).
3 The Associated Press, « Obama Seeks ‘New Beginning’ With Cuba », April 17, 2009.
4 Macarena Vidal, « Obama ofrece ‘un nuevo comienzo’ en las relaciones con Cuba », EFE, April 17, 2009.
5 John Dorschner & Monica Hatcher, « Liberan a los viajes a Cuba », El Nuevo Herald, April 13, 2009.
6 Matthew Lee & Paul Haven, « US, Cuba Held Unannounced Talks », September 30, 2009.
7El Duende, « Una americana cantando con Juanes », September 30, 2009.
8Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), « Release of Civil Penalties Information », September 2009, www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/actions/index.shtlm (site consulted October 5, 2009).
9 Ginger Thomson, « U.S. Official Meets With Cuban Authorities », The New York Times, September 30, 2009.
10 Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada’s Office, September 22, 2009 ; Agence France Presse, « Cuba asegura que EEUU impidió viaje de 30 científicos », September 23, 2009 ; Agencia Cubana de Noticias, « Washington Bans Orthopedics Doctors From Attending Event in Cuba », September 22, 2009 ; Jim Abrams, « Senador intercede por permiso de viaje para la Filarmónica de NY », The Associated Press, October 5, 2009.
11 Jim Abrams, « Senador intercede por permiso de viaje para la Filarmónica de NY », op. cit.
12 María Pena, « Piden al Congreso eliminar restricciones de viajes de estadounidenses a Cuba », EFE, October 1st, 2009.
14 Mauricio Vicent, « Cuba dice que Obama no ha tocado el embargo », El País¸ September 16, 2009.
15Barack Obama, « Remarks By the President of the United States to the United Nations General Assembly », op. cit.
16 Salim Lamrani, Cuba : ce que les medias ne vous diront jamais (Paris : Editions Estrella, 2009), pp. 121-133.
17 Christopher Hitchens, « What Was Bill Thinking ? », Newsweek, September 24, 2009. http://www.newsweek.com/id/216052/ (site consulted October 5, 2009).
18 Salim Lamrani, Cuba : ce que les medias ne vous diront jamais, op. cit., pp. 145-154.
19Ibid., pp. 135-144.
20 Ibid., pp. 107-120.
21 Ibid., pp. 79-105.
Salim Lamrani is a university lecturer at the University Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV and the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and a French journalist, specialist on the relationship between Cuba and the United States. Lamrani has just published Cuba: Ce que les médias ne jamais vous diront (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2009). Contact: [email protected]