Obama’s Slow (and Familiar) Dance With Cuba

In the forty-eight years since the severance of official diplomatic ties and the institution of the U.S. trade embargo, Washington has seen to it that Cuban-American relations have remained virtually frozen, only altered by a few incremental shifts. The advent of the Obama administration has, at first glance, changed this situation. The administration’s new approach to Cuba has thus far been well-received by nearly all groups, even though it increasingly is being seen as excessively cautious. Bernard Aronson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs from 1989-1993, has referred to the President’s actions as both “welcome and overdue.” Even Mel Martinez, the hard-line Cuban-American Republican senator from Florida, commended the administration’s approach. Though recent international events have greatly overshadowed this important aspect of American foreign policy, a deeper look at this administration’s approach to Cuban-American relations finds them more as a return to the hyper-cautious policies of the Clinton years rather than the progressive and innovative Latin American agenda for which Obama has shown so much promise.

Brief Overview: Cuba and the Prospect of Change

In the course of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that he would introduce innovations to Washington’s current Cuba policy. Since his inauguration nearly five months ago, this pledge was soon translated into the administration’s reversal of some of the restrictions and tactics implemented during the Bush era. Among the most prominent of these reversals thus far has been the April 13 decision to relax restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the Caribbean country. Whereas the strict restrictions under the Bush administration capped remittances to a $1,200 annual amount and permitted Cuban-Americans with family ties on the island to have one two-week visit every three years and, the new Obama regulations remove all such limitations. According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the primary reason for this policy change was to promote a “freer flow of information among the Cuban people and between those in Cuba and the rest of the world…” Additionally, it was hoped that the relaxation of controls and the subsequent rise in remittances would reduce the Cuban population’s economic dependence on the central government, as a 2004 report issued by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (a rightist U.S. government group) estimated that between $400-800 million flowed annually to the island from such sources.

Obama also announced on April 13 the easing of U.S.-Cuba telecommunications restrictions. The White House provided the rationale for the decision by maintaining that “This will increase the means through which Cubans on the island can communicate with each other and with persons outside of Cuba.” The White House statement went on to find that “Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island.” Under this new policy, American telecommunications firms will be able to sign service agreements with Cuban telecommunications providers and also link the United States with Cuba via fiber optic cables and satellite.

The current administration also announced on May 31 the resumption of migration talks with Havana. The talks, which date back to 1994 and were abruptly suspended by the Bush administration in 2003, were recently renewed on July 13 in New York and primarily will be aimed at reducing the flood of Cuban migrants attempting to enter the United States, usually in precariously built boats. Furthermore, it was also announced that discussions pertaining to cooperation on counterterrorism, drug interdiction, hurricane relief efforts and the establishment of enhanced direct postal services between the two countries would also be on the agenda . Regarding these talks, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented, “Greater connections can lead to a better, freer future for the Cuban people. These talks are in the interest of the United States, and they are also in the interest of the Cuban people.”

These new measures are obviously indicative of the current administration’s stated desire for a more diplomatic and constructive approach toward Cuba. Its strategy thus far has proven to be a welcome departure from the confrontational and destructive strategy of the Bush era, which at its nadir featured Cuba’s inclusion in the “Axis of Evil” compilation in a meretricious May 2002 speech by then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton (primarily due to his totally unfounded accusation of Cuba’s alleged pursuit of biological weapons which turned out to be a pure invention on his part) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s inclusion of the Caribbean island in her list of the “Outposts of Tyranny” in 2005.

Status Quo Ante Bush: A Clinton Restoration?

While attending the inauguration of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes on June 1, Secretary of State Clinton boasted that in terms of Cuba, “We’ve made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years.” However, in retrospect, the reversals have merely brought Cuban-American relations back to their former status during the waning days of the Clinton administration, after the signing of the Helms-Burton Act. In his six months in office, President Obama has failed to take bold steps beyond the realm of modest reversals and incremental steps which could have furthered the White House’s ultimate professed goal of normalizing relations with Cuba. The reversals ordered by Obama have come with little political risk and have lacked audacity or flair, as they occurred at a time when it is politically fashionable and expedient to decry the merits of Bush-era diplomacy. Obama seemed satisfied to have simply undone some of the damages wrought upon the relationship between Cuba and the United States by the previous administration, thereby representing an approach that as of now adds up to lackluster progress for a man committed to ambitious change.

The recent revelation by the Miami Herald that the United States and Cuba held joint military exercises a number of days ago, if accurate, offers a compelling microcosm of Obama’s somewhat confusing approach to Cuba until now. The simulated disaster response exercise – which featured a Cuban helicopter extinguishing a simulated wildfire at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and American soldiers crossing into Cuban territory to set up a triage center – apparently had been continually held since the 1990’s, but this information was suppressed by a Bush administration fearing a backlash by the Miami-based Cuban-American community in Miami. The Obama administration, in a calculated yet cautious move, leaked the existence of the exercise to the Miami Herald (which reported it on July 19), perhaps to gauge the receptiveness of the American public – particularly the Cuban-American community – to an improvement of ties with the isolated island. As a result of this timid and middling diplomacy, the commonly acknowledged jump-start to a revival of U.S. – Latin American relations has yet to occur, with Clinton’s State Department featuring little better than the odd negative barb at Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Evo Morales’ Bolivia, and an overly cautious response to the removal of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.

Missteps: Policy Inconsistencies

Though it is true that the easing of telecommunications marked a slight departure from the Clinton years, it has served to highlight some of the inconsistencies in the current administration’s timid and minimalist approach toward Cuba. In a largely under-reported event by major media outlets, Microsoft blocked access to its Messenger instant messaging service in Cuba during the last week of May. The company justified its decision by releasing the following statement: “Microsoft has discontinued providing Instant Messenger services in certain countries subject to United States sanctions. Details of these sanctions are available from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).” Messenger, which had been used as a means of communication on the island for the past decade, had operated in Cuba despite the existence of the embargo.

The service’s abrupt termination after ten years of operation – even in the midst of the embargo and Microsoft’s vague and nonsensical style of explanation for its cancellation – suggests that Microsoft was pressured to pursue such an action by the OFAC, which serves at the behest of the Treasury Department. The fact that Google and AOL joined Microsoft in blocking their own versions of instant messaging services later in the week and that the Obama administration has made no effort to clarify the matter takes this country back to square one. At this point, U.S.-Cuba policy is a wash and further serves as a direct contradiction to Obama’s rationale for his earlier relaxations of the anti-Cuba policy he inherited. In light of the recent effectiveness of enlisting electronic sources such as Facebook and Twitter in disseminating information – both domestically and internationally in Iran – the need to reverse this inconsistency by the Obama administration has been substantially magnified and must be directly addressed if the new administration deserves to be reviewed as credible.

Secretary of State Clinton had previously described the Cuba policy which she inherited “as having failed,” and that perhaps “more productive ways forward” were required. However, despite this statement, the hubris characteristic of the Bush administration strategy aimed at Cuba remained an integral part of the current American delegation’s repertoire during the 39th Regular Session of the OAS General Assembly on June 2-3. With Cuban readmission into the OAS as the prevailing topic of discussion, the new administration, led by Secretary of State Clinton, adamantly crusaded in its own way to block the lifting of Cuba’s suspension from the organization in 1962 without conditions. Later, when revocation had become a certitude, the administration, in a face-saving move, supported readmission but in an intransigent tone, chose to dictate the conditions for such a return, never assuming that Havana might itself demand that certain steps be taken before it would accept the new proposition. The dictation of terms was, on Washington’s part, reminiscent of the inelastic positions of previous U.S. administrations and ran contrary to the engaging and proactive manner that the Obama administration, during the electoral campaign, had suggested it would embrace towards Cuba.

The Perfect Storm

The promised reversals by the Obama administration, if faithfully pursued, could prove to be the right foundational step in furthering the improvement of Cuban-American ties. However, the feeble end-product emitted by the President has, to date, squandered a perfect storm of extraordinary and auspicious possibilities which have granted Obama an unparalleled opportunity – one of which leaders normally dare to only dream – to build upon his initial successes and bring about historic change. In dealing with Havana, the perfect storm is as follows:

• 71 percent of Americans support restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba (CNN/Opinion Research Corp., April 3-5)

• Obama has a 70 percent approval rating in Latin America (CIMA, April 16)

• The political power of the historically hard-line Cuban-American community has crumbled in recent years due to the emergence of a younger and more conciliatory generation who lack the poisoned memory of both the Revolution and the Bay of Pigs fiasco

• In a national telephone poll, 67% of Cuban-American respondents gave Obama a favorable rating (Bendixen & Associates, April 15-16)

• There is a prevalent sentiment in Cuba that Obama is the first American leader willing and capable of bringing change to the troubled relations between the two ancient foes.

One would think that these unique circumstances have provided Obama with an unassailable political position which he must seize in order to satisfy the high expectations on both sides of the Florida Straits as well as to take meaningful steps toward the transformational change in Cuban-American relations.

Missed Opportunities

Given the island’s sagging economic performance, due in part to last year’s devastating tropical storms, and the implementation of an unpopular austerity program introduced by the Castro regime, the absence of the full legalization of travel by all U.S. nationals, and not just Cuban-Americans to Cuba, and the resumption of direct flights between the two nations, represented sadly missed opportunities by Washington to normalize ties to Cuba that would likely have been accepted by Havana. The Cuban tourism industry, which, according to the Cuban National Office of Statistics was the country’s largest source of revenue in 2008 and which accounted for $2.7 billion last year, would experience an undeniable spurt of growth in the near future due to such measures.

From Cairo to Havana

Due in large part to the neglect of the previous administration, Washington continues to be relatively isolated from Latin America politically and diplomatically. Taking this into account, an amelioration of ties with Havana has been the linchpin to what could be a new start in U.S.-Latin American relations, as Latin American leaders continue to perceive United States’ policy toward Cuba as remaining unenlightened and one of the last vestiges of Washington’s traditional imperial tendencies toward the region.

Obama has up to now failed to rectify this situation by capitalizing on his greatest ability: a special predisposition for eloquence and clarity in the most opportune of settings. Much like the President’s most recent trip to Cairo, which was strategically intended to have a positive effect both in Egypt and the wider Muslim world, a comparable official state visit to Havana might have yielded extraordinary ramifications for both the leftist island as well as Latin America.

Although entirely unlikely in the present mindset, not only would an Obama visit mark the first time that a sitting American president has visited Cuba since the revolution in 1959, it would also have diminished the shroud of hypocrisy that has surrounded Cuban-American relations for decades, particularly when compared to the robustness of Sino-American relations, in spite of huge human rights impediments in the latter country. The United States historically has refused meetings at the highest level with Cuba due to the latter’s human rights record, but routinely has granted such meetings with China, a much larger human rights transgressor.

Additionally, such a visit by the President himself would have conveyed a strong message of commitment to the normalization of Cuban-American relations. Moreover and most importantly, such a move would reflect the U.S. President aggressively taking the initiative and forcing the hand of the Castro regime in the direction of liberalization and openness – all this taking place at a time when, according to a U.S. State Department official, Havana is already facing a “significant desire, and even pressure, on them [Cuban officials] for social and economic reform [from their own people]. The Cuban government has to respond in some fashion.” With an official state visit not likely in the near term, the administration has preferred utilizing a new and fully diapason form of diplomacy, pressing the New York Philharmonic to accept an invitation by the Cuban government to perform in Havana in October and November.

Washington’s relationship with Latin America has sadly in the past been two-dimensional: either one rife with arrogant and paternalistic overtones, or one of outright hostility. A presidential visit to the capital of what for decades has been the United States’ greatest hemispheric adversary would undoubtedly have sealed a dreary chapter in regional relations and possibly herald a new and much more inventive era. Such a step would substantiate Obama’s pledge at the Summit of the Americas in mid-April of a regional relationship based on an “equal partnership” with “no senior partner or junior partner” and “mutual respect.”

Surprisingly absent from Obama’s Cuban diplomatic toolbox has been the embrasure of multilateral initiatives involving Latin American nations. Diplomatic coordination with these countries could facilitate a Cuban-American rapprochement, as some of them hold influential sway in Havana as well as Washington, and such hemispheric powerhouses like Brazil would like to see nothing better. For instance, Mexican President Felipe Calderón restored his country’s traditionally close ties with Cuba and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva, along with many Brazilian businessmen, signed important trade and investment deals worth upwards of $1 billion with the leftist island in January. The Economist informs us, but with no supporting evidence, that the diplomats of nations such as Brazil and Mexico are reluctant to voice criticisms of Havana, but they quietly support Washington’s ultimate goal of political liberalization in Cuba. It is needless to say that close cooperation would also foster a constructive regional dialogue and cement an “equal partnership” arrangement.


Up until now, changes in Cuban-American relations brought about by the Obama administration have been insubstantial and superficial, simply reverting back to the days of the Clinton administration. The current approach also has been lacking consistency, particularly in the egregious case of Microsoft. The support and opportunities for true change exist, but the will to do so is lacking – at least as of now.

Amid the turmoil in Iran, the provocative actions by North Korea, the present crisis in Honduras, and the domestic debates on healthcare and financial reform, the matter of Cuban-American rapprochement has been lost to relative obscurity, returning to its position of geopolitical irrelevance it experienced during the Bush administration. Even though no real movement has occurred up to now, the question now is whether Barack Obama still has some of the audacity which he displayed in his challenge of the status quo during his presidential campaign – when he repeatedly vowed to refocus U.S. diplomacy and steer away from routine and formulaic policies. If he does this by taking the necessary transformational strides while both the desire and conditions for change are in the air, hope remains. But with the window of opportunity potentially closing while he casts his eyes elsewhere, Obama would do well by abandoning his slow and familiar rumba and preparing for the up-tempo salsa if he means to get the job done.

FELIPE MATSUNAGA is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.