Belated Half Measures on Cuba

My time as a U.S. diplomat in Cuba during the Obama thaw of 2015-17 showed me what was possible to achieve when diplomacy was given a chance to work.


Photo Source: Getty Images via BBC

Many democracy activists in Cuba would say the Cuban government is responsible for the continuation of an ossified political and economic system on the island that restricts decision-making authority to a tiny elite. And they’d be right. The severe prison sentences that the Diaz-Canel regime imposed on the July 11 protestors are just the latest example of a regime that fears its own people. But there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the United States government, including the Biden administration, shares responsibility for the betrayal of the Cuban people. My time as a U.S. diplomat in Cuba during the Obama thaw of 2015-17 showed me what was possible to achieve when diplomacy was given a chance to work. The Biden administration’s May 16 announcement of limited humanitarian exceptions to the draconian Cuba policy are welcome, but don’t go far enough. It’s time to renew full constructive engagement, including individual U.S. travel, and stop punishing the Cuban people for the sins of an elite over which they have no control.  

U.S. policy towards Cuba has long been governed by domestic considerations, especially following the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The Cold War context and understandable exile bitterness promoted a regime change policy that ranged from efforts to topple the regime by force at the Bay of Pigs, through a campaign to kill Fidel Castro himself, to schemes to instigate the Cuban people to rise up against him. The primary vehicle for the latter hope has been the U.S. economic embargo of the island and its related myriad complex financial tentacles that combine to discourage most countries from trading with Cuba. In addition to Cuba’s economy not producing sufficient income to pay for goods, traders have to establish careful legal compliance systems to defend themselves against potential U.S. sanctions. The volume of Cuba-related business is not worth it.

The apparent U.S. theory of change is that unilateral economic sanctions will cause such misery that the Cuban people will realize their fate depends on a democratic uprising. This perspective is flawed in a number of ways. First, it fails the test of experience. This approach has not worked for over two generations. In almost any context in the public or private sectors, a policy that had so persistently failed to produce the intended outcome would have been changed long ago, and its supporters questioned about their continued adherence to a lost cause. Second, the theory of change is morally obtuse and has become more so with the passage of time. U.S. policymakers are prepared to promote widespread economic suffering for millions of people to achieve an objective they know to be illusory. And third, the policy is disingenuous on its face. The United States knows it has failed, and will continue to fail, yet its supporters persist by obscuring the real reason for its continuation—a decision by the White House to outsource U.S. policy on Cuba (and Venezuela and Nicaragua) to a small group of hard-line Cuban exile sympathizers in south Florida.  

My experience in Cuba as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Havana from 2015 to 2017, the latter part of which was as charge d’affaires, demonstrates that a more constructive U.S. policy benefits both countries, and especially the Cuban people. We negotiated 22 diplomatic agreements with the Cuban government during the Obama administration that covered a wide range of issues associated with normal bilateral relations, including on matters of direct national security concern for the United States like migration, maritime search and rescue, public health, oil spills, and territorial limits in the Gulf of Mexico. These agreements will provide the basis for a future normalized bilateral relationship. Those sessions were never easy, and Cuban diplomats were always well prepared and committed to advocating for their positions. Yet they were concluded in ways acceptable to both countries, as diplomatic agreements can be if both sides are prepared to forego total victory and instead seek acceptable incremental progress.

The agreements we negotiated did not in themselves improve the lives of the Cuban people, of course, but related U.S. policies did, especially the liberalization of remittances that U.S. citizens could send to Cubans on the island and the expansion of easily-accessible legal travel options. The central benefits of this people-to-people exchange were to allow U.S. citizens the opportunity to visit a neighbor that had been closed to them for decades and to permit the Cuban people to earn money from the expansion of this travel. Both aspects worked out extremely well. More than a million Americans visited Cuba in 2017, for example, many staying at privately-run accommodations and eating in private sector restaurants. The Cuban middle class grew visibly. Equally valuable, independent Cuban civil society also emerged, working on cultural and political issues like LGBT rights and artistic freedom. The formal “dissident community” was divided in its assessment of the Obama policy changes. Some approved, on the basis that the hard-line policies had only entrenched the repressive regime and that new approaches were worth trying. Others opposed the changes, arguing that the Cuban government would merely pocket additional income from travelers and reinforce their grip on power.

I saw firsthand how morale and hope flourished in Cuba during 2016, perhaps culminating in President Obama’s visit in March. His live speech to the Cuban people was respectful of their independent history yet it spoke also of their agency—of the Cuban people themselves, and especially its young people, being the movers of history, on their own time and in their own way. The Cuban government’s reaction was swift and negative. They were caught off guard by the warm welcome that Obama received from the Cuban people and the excitement his speech generated. One Cuban told me that in the future Cubans will mark the days as “before Obama’s speech” and “after Obama’s speech,” replacing the Cuban revolution as the Rubicon moment in Cuban history. Cuban officials spoke negatively to the diplomatic corps about the remarks and Fidel Castro himself appeared as the closing speaker at the 7th Party Congress a month later to condemn the speech and the visit. Then Cuban officials began another crackdown on independent civil society, reflecting the same fear of losing political control that has animated the party elite for decades.

One element of U.S. policy that the Cuban government misrepresented was Obama’s commitment to seeing the Cuban people make their own decisions, in their own way, and in their own time. Cuban officials claimed it was just regime change by another name. But it was real. Obama knew that the United States could not impose democracy in Cuba and that any such outcome would be tainted by its provenance. The only sustainable solution to governance in Cuba must come from solutions worked out in Cuba itself, involving the largest possible number of Cubans on the island in making decisions. He felt the results of that effort were for Cubans to decide, not for Americans to impose. And this may explain the real reason for the Cuban government’s concern. The 2015-16 period in Cuba was one where Cuban expectations began to match their aspirations. Those expectations did not necessarily include an early introduction of a representative system of government, or even open discussion of different perspectives within the Communist Party, but they saw Cubans speak up about the kinds of lives and opportunities they deserved. 

We will never know what might have happened if the Obama approach to Cuba had been allowed to continue, but it’s not too late to make amends. The election of President Trump in November 2016 started the process of reverting U.S. policy back to its Cold War-inspired hostility, and in fact made it even harsher. The still-unresolved “acoustic health incidents” disrupted whatever diplomatic process remained and, in September 2017, then-Secretary Tillerson pulled most diplomats out. By then, bilateral relations were on life support anyway, where they remain.  

Candidate Biden made much of his intention to roll back the Trump changes, emphasizing the humanitarian value to the Cuban people of doing so, yet has done little to bring this about. To be fair, the Biden administration has been unable to determine what caused some diplomats to suffer debilitating illnesses in Havana and may feel it cannot protect its diplomats from whatever may have caused this to happen. Limited consular services appear to be resuming in Havana, and on May 16 the administration announced limited relaxations of some restrictive policies for humanitarian reasons. Yet they do not go far enough. The 2020 electoral outcome in Florida was disappointing to Democrats and the Biden team appears to have concluded that being perceived as not tough enough on Cuba was a principal reason. 

What should be done? First, the Biden administration should re-open the embassy in Havana at full strength. U.S. diplomats would volunteer to serve in Havana, despite concerns about health risks. I know this because my entire team sent a letter to the State Department on the eve of Secretary Tillerson’s decision to terminate our tours and asked to remain. This would allow the United States to process all pending refugee petitions and regular travel visas, important humanitarian steps that help promote family unification. Second, the United States should restore the liberalized travel rules that allowed so many individual Americans to visit Cuba and boost the Cuban private sector. This support for Cuban families is the least the United States should do after decades of actively seeking to make their lives miserable. Third, the Biden administration should again liberalize all financial transfers by U.S. citizens, not just Cuban Americans, to Cuban families. Those three policy changes, in the context of existing rules that require Americans to use private hotels and restaurants, would be administratively easy to do and require only a smattering of political courage. Arguments that such an approach would be “rewarding the regime” are unpersuasive and merely repeat the tired perspective of a policy that has failed for two generations.  

In themselves, such changes will not produce the regime change of Florida fantasy. But they will help to lighten the indelible stain on the diplomatic reputation of the United States that two generations of morally bankrupt policies have produced. More importantly, they will treat the Cuban people with the respect they deserve. The United States is not responsible for the mess that Cuba’s leaders have made of the island, but it is accountable for perpetuating it—and them. The U.S. approach entrenches the regime and regularly undermines U.S. regional diplomacy by alienating partners, as most recently seen by threats from leaders of Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, and CARICOM to boycott the Summit of the Americas unless Cuba is invited. The Cuban people are no different from most Americans in their aspirations and willingness to work hard to achieve them. It’s time for the Biden administration to drop its timidity on Cuba.

Scott Hamilton is a former senior U.S. foreign service officer who retired in April, 2022 after almost 30 years of service. His most recent assignments were Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires in Cuba, and Director for Central American Affairs in Washington, DC. He also served at the US Mission to the OAS, and in Colombia and Ecuador, among other assignments. He is a graduate of Oxford University, Harvard Law School, and the National Defense University.

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