A fulsome re-orientation of U.S. policy that opens more markets to American goods and services and puts U.S. national security interests at the top of the list of priorities in Latin America and the Caribbean has eluded U.S. policymakers since the end of the Cold War. President Trump has a unique opportunity to advance an America First policy toward Cuba and the rest of Latin America. The President has done this, especially taking a tough stance on illegal immigration and the renegotiating NAFTA; however, America must also deal with old problems, starting with a clearer Cuba policy.
Besides Iran, Trump administration officials have said the administration are reportedly pursuing a maximum pressure campaign toward Cuba. Issued on October 20, 2017, the Trump policy framework outlined in National Security Presidential Memorandum 5, provides a few clues about the Cuba-version of Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, but it remains anchored on outdated laws and policies that put America Second, not America First.
Since the mid-1990s the United States has been easing the comprehensive embargo against Cuba. The first kink in the armor was the Cuban Democracy of 1992 which authorized telecommunications services to Cuba. Billed by anti-regime policymakers as a get-tough measure for a post-Cold War world, it helped re-establish direct phone service between the United States Cuba.
The idea then, and still is, if the people in Cuba could re-connect with family and friend via telephone and travel, it would inject new ideas into Cuban society that would over time lead to political change on the island. To politically placate the original advocates of a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign toward Cuba, targeted sanctions were included in the law. For example, the countries who receive U.S. foreign assistance or import U.S. defense articles pursuant to the Arms Export Control Act, but who also provide assistance to Cuba, could be sanctioned by the United States. To my knowledge, this has never happened.
In fact most of the Cuban Democracy Act sanctions have rarely, if ever, been enforced; however, the telecommunications portion of the bill has been. This law is now an essential economic lifeline for the regime. It receives a lot of money every year from fees generated by phone and internet services. And it will continue to do. As for the economic sanctions in this law, don’t hold your breath for full enforcement. It has never happened. President Trump can break the chain, just like he did by allowing American citizens to sue in federal courts persons or companies who traffic in confiscated properties in Cuba.
The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 opened the way for more sanctions-easing legislation disguised as get-tough legislation. The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2000, and implementing these and other laws via regulations has something for everyone. Over time, the primary reason the embargo was imposed, to begin with – property confiscations without compensation – has become a footnote for an outdated “regime change” policy that has not worked (N.B., with a handful of notable exceptions, most of the viable opposition and dissident movement live in the Diaspora, not Cuba. This needs to change too. I will write about this subject in the near future).
Socialism and totalitarian regimes in Cuba or anywhere else in the world, including the United States, are bad news for liberty. Communism and socialism are responsible for some of the most horrific atrocities in human history. Billions the world over continue to struggle against this evil ideology. The battle will outlive most of us. Yet telling another nation, in this case, Cuba, how they should order their internal affairs, is un-American. The future of Cuba is up to the people of Cuba. If they were free to make a choice, I doubt a majority of Cubans would pick socialism. Regardless, it is their choice to make and it is time American foreign policy reflected this.
A democratic and free Cuba is the U.S. national interest, however, imposing unilateral economic sanctions will not make that happen. Sanctions are tools, not a policy. President Trump has a unique opportunity because of events in Venezuela and Nicaragua, to take these tools and advance U.S. national and security interests and make U.S.-Cuba policy more than a sanctions soundbite for political and special interest groups on both sides of this debate.
While special interests on all sides of the U.S.-Cuba policy debate make it harder, for example, for American citizens holding certified property claims to be made whole, Cuba, thanks to U.S.-based travel and remittances facilitated by U.S. laws, has become a remittance-dependent economy. This outcome is the exact opposite outcome of what U.S. laws were supposed to do in the first place!
These loopholes need to be calibrated, or in some cases closed, to better advance U.S. national and security interests in the Americas. While the President has done better than prior administrations, Republican or Democratic, he must invest a great more political capital to the Cuba question, one that connects Russia, China, Russia, Nicaragua, even Iran, among other malign actors in the Americas.
For a whole variety of reasons, the road to liberty in Caracas and Managua starts in Havana.
As called for in U.S. law, unlike President Barack Obama’s Cuba apology tour, the President should enforce all economic sanctions and other restrictions in coordination with allies to bring Cuba back to serious negotiations. As he has done with Iran, President Trump needs to clarify to Cuba that America remains open to talks, but only if Cuba does a few things immediately including fessing up, and take steps to prevent, what happened to U.S. diplomats injured in Cuba; releasing unlawfully detained Americans in Cuba and extraditing all fugitives from U.S. law, and start negotiations to settle U.S. certified property claims.
Until these things happen, a genuine “maximum pressure” campaign should be implemented and our allies, especially the Lima Group coalition helping with Venezuela, should follow America’s lead. The Trump administration and the Congress should also sit down and negotiate a new U.S.-Cuba policy that better reflects the political realities in the Americas and the world, but something that puts American interests first and foremost.