USA*Engage Blog

The New Status Quo and U.S.-Cuba Relations
Wednesday, 11 March 2015
by Richard Sawaya
Richard Sawaya is Vice President of USA*Engage

The position of those in high dudgeon about President Obama’s negotiated change of policy with the Cuban regime can be summed up by former Texas governor Rick Perry’s declaration: “We got a bad deal. This administration basically empowered the Castro regime with no thought of the Cuban people.” While this may work as an applause-seeking sound bite, does it stand up to reason?

The U.S. embargo and its bilateral appurtenances are more than a half-century old. Brothers Fidel and Raul have seen nine U.S. presidents from both political parties come and go. During that time, the challenges born by the Cuban people are inarguable. But the embargo has compounded the problem.

A refinement of the naysayers’ argument has been: given Cuban dependence on Venezuela’s largesse and that latter’s impending economic implosion, President Obama should have insisted upon a transformation of the Cuban regime into a Scandinavian-style social democracy as the quid pro quo for moving to normalize bilateral relations and simultaneously liberalizing bits and pieces of the embargo by executive action. The problem with that approach is that there is no lever. We’re not at war, and we haven’t won.

Here’s an alternative idea: under the new status quo, the U.S. and Cuban governments can attempt to negotiate the resumption of normal diplomatic relations. Under the limited abilities for commerce afforded by President Obama’s executive action, the ball is indubitably in the Cuban regime’s court: to enable or not?

And, if the embargo were by a miracle of political commonsense to be lifted by congressional action, than the spotlight for improving the Cuban economy would be placed squarely and visibly on Cuba.

To take one aspect of current regime control over the Cuban people: no U.S. business can do business absent the basic ability to hire and pay indigenous employees directly, or purchase goods and services directly. No embargo; no excuse.

If there were ever a test case for engagement in the face of the accumulated ironies of history, Cuba is it.