AEI: Obama’s Gambit Misunderstands Cuban Reality

Thursday, February 12, 2015
Ambassador Roger Noriega has written a new report for the American Enterprise Institute evaluating President Obama's new Cuba policy.

Read the entire report here.

Below are the key points and introduction:

Obama’s gambit misunderstands Cuban reality

  • President Obama’s new push to normalize relations with Cuba neglects the Cuban dictatorship’s internal oppression, relentless hostility to US interests, and implacable opposition to change.
  • The Obama administration has rushed to facilitate new travel and trade with Cuba, but the Castro regime controls virtually every aspect of the economy, benefits from cash remittances and tourism, and stifles the country’s potential growth.
  • While the Obama administration struggles to justify its unilateral concessions and has yet to press for international help on Cuba, the Castro regime has rejected calls for change and is making new demands to put the administration on the defensive.
  • For Obama to salvage his new Cuba approach, his team will have to develop and implement an actual strategy that measures up to his rhetoric without letting down American interests and ideals.
President Obama’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with the Castro government after 54 years is certainly dramatic. However, it appears that his new approach to Cuba, announced on December 17, will neither advance US interests nor produce any significant change on the island.

Although Obama’s actions have been characterized as bold, their practical impact is to reinforce the status quo and favor a soft landing for the Castro dictatorship. Critics of the president’s initiatives assert that the normalization of political relations confers political recognition on a totalitarian regime, prioritizing conventional dialogue with the state over solidarity with the Cuban people.

Accepting the premise that US policy—not the willful Castro regime—is the primary obstacle to change (“[I]solation has not worked,” he proclaimed), the president has proposed wholesale changes without laying out a meaningful strategy for advancing US interests, let alone for addressing the plight of 11 million Cubans. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s executive action on Cuba will be part of his legacy or just another example of a president’s reach exceeding his grasp.

Obama claims that US policies meant to isolate the Castro regime are ineffective and hinder people-to-people engagement—travel, trade, and communications—that he believes will help Cubans prepare for a post-Castro transition. Also, by restoring diplomatic ties with the regime, Obama apparently hopes to eliminate an irritant in US relations with his counterparts in the Americas.

The early results are not promising. Most Cuban dissidents have rejected the concessions, including a measure relaxing controls on dollar transfers to family members. “The more resources a dictatorship enjoys, the higher the level of repression is within the country,” said human rights and democracy activist Jorge Luis García Pérez. “And the stronger the dictatorship, the stronger the repression.”

While the administration has rushed to facilitate new commerce with Cuba, these narrow measures mostly serve to raise expectations of new business opportunities with a bankrupt command economy. Meanwhile, a triumphant Raúl Castro has been quick to demand other substantial concessions (described later) from the US, while making clear that his regime will not reciprocate with fundamental changes to the Cuban economy or state.