New Report Cites Political and Foreign Policy Benefits of Changing the U.S. Approach to Cuba

Monday, 1 December 2008

The report highlights a national security benefit from changing policy, observing that the Bush administration has increased the burden on key government agencies responsible for keeping the United States safe from terrorism through its directives related to the Cuba sanctions program.  Reversing those policies, and establishing risk-based priorities for allocating scarce resources, would allow the U.S. government to refocus its attention on the most serious threats to national security. 

Colvin also suggests there is a changing political landscape that makes a different approach to Cuba “an increasingly smart political strategy,” given the attitudes of new Cuban American voters as well as the growing number of non-Cuban Hispanic voters in Florida.

"This paper provides a roadmap for the Obama Administration to fundamentally reform the United States’ failed policy of isolating Cuba.  Jake makes a compelling case that engaging Cuba will provide humanitarian, economic and security benefits and will demonstrate to the international community that President Obama is committed to a policy of constructive engagement," said Cal Dooley, a former Member of Congress from California.

The report draws on the advice of numerous former senior U.S. government officials with responsibility for Cuba as well as other foreign and economic policies.  James Dobbins, Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs, National Security Council, 1996–1999, says in the report that, “Cuba policy is long past due for substantial revision, and domestically there is waning support. Flooding Cuba with American tourists, journalists, and culture is the fastest way to promote change. I’d almost completely reverse current policy.”

Other former officials who advocate substantial changes to U.S. Cuba policy include former Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs at National Security Council Arturo Valenzuela; former Assistant Secretaries of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Jeffrey Davidow, Peter Romero and Alexander Watson; and former U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations Thomas Pickering and Nancy Soderberg.

While suggesting that the United States should normalize relations with Cuba over the long term, Colvin acknowledges the relationship with Cuba “is too complex and not urgent enough to commit the kind of time and energy that would be required for full and immediate normalization.”  Incremental steps to loosen restrictions and alter the United States’ diplomatic approach, he says, would still send a clear message of change to the hemisphere and the world. 

The report recommends that President-elect Obama reverse President Bush’s initiatives on Cuba policy in the context of the transition team’s review of existing regulations.  Specifically, President-elect Obama could immediately remove restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to travel and send financial support to family in Cuba; rescind the Bush administration’s counterproductive limits on people-to-people travel and trade; rely on general licenses for travel to Cuba and instruct the Treasury Department to redeploy resources internally to focus on more urgent priorities; and abolish the Office of Transition Coordinator and the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which obstruct direct diplomacy with Cuba and disrupt relations with U.S. allies.

“An overhaul of American policy toward Cuba is long overdue.  That is the case Jake Colvin makes here in a cogent and compelling fashion,” said Jim Kolbe, former Member of Congress from Arizona.  “Moreover, he suggests how those changes can be made by a new President and the Congress, starting with the easing of trade and travel restrictions.  Policy makers would do well to heed the recommendations made here.

Colvin also offers a series of initiatives the President and Congress should undertake over the longer term.  They include returning the responsibility for Cuba policy to the State Department bureaucracy; engaging Cuba diplomatically through regular, lower-level contacts; finding ways to work with U.S. allies to support human rights, civil society and economic development in Cuba; ending the travel ban; and promoting cultural exchanges and dialogue with the Cuban people.  Finally, he notes that both sides will need to address broader impediments to normal relations, including the Cuba Adjustment Act, Cuba’s place on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, property claims, trademark issues, and the status of the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

The report attempts to dispel the notion that the executive branch’s hands are tied when it comes to changing policy. Drawing on advice from former officials from the U.S. Treasury Department who were responsible for sanctions policy it concludes that, “In spite of the layers of U.S. laws and regulations on Cuba, and the mistaken belief among many that meaningful policy changes require an act of Congress, the president retains wide discretion to modify the rules…through its licensing authority in the Cuba Assets Control Regulations. The idea that Congress has limited the president through legislation such as Helms-Burton is largely a myth.”

"There is a real opportunity for the next President to make bold changes to Cuba policy," according to Peter Romero, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President Clinton.  Romero added, "Jake's paper makes an excellent argument as to why the Obama administration should pay attention to Cuba policy and suggests a useful – and politically-feasible – path forward."

The report was underwritten by the New Ideas Fund, a progressive organization which seeks new approaches and paradigms for U.S. national security and foreign policies.  A copy of the report is available here: