By Dan Froomkin
12:00 PM ET, 04/14/2009
There's nothing the least bit bold about the baby steps toward engagement with Cuba that the White House announced yesterday. And President Obama shouldn't be getting any credit for bucking the Cuban lobby -- not when the Cuban American National Foundation, the archetypal redoubt of hysterical anti-Castroism, asked him last week to do even more.
Indeed, the big news is that Obama is leaving the Bush Administration's failed Cuban strategy largely in place, including a trade embargo and, at least thus far, a refusal to engage in diplomatic relations with one of our nearest neighbors.
Consider, for instance, that the most far-reaching change announced yesterday, allowing travel to Cuba, only applies to people with family there. Others will still face fines and criminal prosecution.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Damien Cave write in the New York Times that Obama "demonstrated Monday that he was willing to open the door toward greater engagement with Cuba — but at this point, only a crack.
"The announcement represents the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades, and it is a reversal of the hard line taken by President George W. Bush."
And yet, as Stolberg and Cave point out: "It comes as Mr. Obama is preparing to meet later this week in Trinidad and Tobago with Latin American leaders, who want him to normalize relations with Cuba and its leader, Raúl Castro.
"The White House made clear on Monday that Mr. Obama, who campaigned on improving relations with Cuba, was not willing to go that far, at least not yet."
Well, could yesterday's actions be seen as the laying a foundation for more far-reaching change?
"'We really don't know yet what he's got in mind for the long term,' said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates a further loosening of the restrictions. She said the administration may be trying to take 'baby steps toward building confidence' by letting the Cuban exile community in Miami, which has traditionally opposed any softening of American policy, get used to the idea....
"[S]ome experts, like Philip Peters, a Cuba specialist and vice president at the Lexington Institute, a policy research center, argue that a president who is willing to engage Iran and Syria ought to be willing to engage Cuba."
Lesley Clark and Luisa Yanez write in the Miami Herald that the policy change "strikes middle ground, reversing former President George W. Bush's efforts to tighten restrictions against Cuba but stopping far short of some efforts in Congress to lift all travel restrictions to the island."
Carol E. Lee writes for Politico: "For most of the recent history, U.S.-Cuba policy has been driven by the sentiment felt among South Florida's Cuban-American exile community, which remained fervently anti-Fidel Castro.
"They voted lockstep Republican since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion under President John F. Kennedy and made it clear that politicians who didn't share their hard-line views on Castro risked being tagged as 'soft on communism' – a label no Democrat could afford to wear.
"But in recent years, younger Cuban-Americans and more recent Cuban exiles have more moderate views than those who fled during Castro's early years. And some of the original Cuban exiles who strongly supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba are having second thoughts, because the policy has yet to topple Castro's regime.
"Also, there was some backlash in the Cuban-American community to the stricter restrictions adopted by President George W. Bush in 2004."
And consider that even the Cuban American National Foundation has concluded that engagement, in contrast to the current strategy, has a chance of working. In a policy statement issued last week, the foundation declared that existing policy "relegates the U.S.'s role to that of passive observer rather than active supporter of the process of democratization...
"Under the Administration of George W. Bush, Cuba policy was defined by the desire to placate perceived domestic political interests, leading to the enactment of policies that lacked strategic thought or benefit and that ignored Cuba's increasingly influential role in Latin America and its active support for anti-American leadership in the region."
The foundation specifically asked for Cuban Americans to be allowed to visit the island: "Cuban-Americans are in the best position to assess the needs of Cubans on the island and can most efficiently direct essential remittances to them. Not only will such a policy provide increased humanitarian aid but it will also permit the Cuban people to become more independent from the State in meeting basic needs and in creating and developing civil society."
Matthew Walter writes for Bloomberg on the Cuban response, where "former President Fidel Castro said President Barack Obama should completely lift an embargo on trade with the communist country...
"'The conditions are there for Obama to use his talent for a constructive policy to put an end to what has failed for almost half a century,' Castro wrote yesterday in a 'reflection' published on the Cubadebate.cu Web site."
Jorge Castañeda and Andrés Martinez write for The Washington Post: "The minor adjustments he has made to American policy towards Cuba simply take us back to the days of the Clinton administration, a time when the trade embargo and the travel ban had already proven to be counterproductive anachronisms. They still are."
Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Obama's action yesterday -- he eased some restrictions on travel, gifts and remittances, but only for Cuban Americans -- is barely a start. He should go so far as to actually base our Cuba policy on reality. After all, we've tried everything else.
"Those who argue for keeping in place the trade embargo and what remains of the travel restrictions -- and even predict that these measures, imposed at a time when the Cold War was getting chillier, will bring the Castro government to its knees any day now -- have been drinking too many mojitos. Claims that the United States would somehow surrender valuable "leverage" by lifting the sanctions are purest fantasy....
"What we should do is lift the embargo, which Obama hasn't meaningfully disturbed, and end the travel ban for everyone. That would put the onus on the Cubans to somehow keep hordes of American capitalists and tourists from infecting the island with dangerous, counterrevolutionary ideas."
Steve Clemons writes in his influential blog that "what was interesting in today's announcement was the fact that his envoys for making today's announcement -- [press secretary Robert] Gibbs and [senior White House adviser on Latin America] Dan Restrepo -- gave no indication that the President felt uneasy issuing executive orders removing all restrictions for Cuban-Americans but not addressing the travel rights of all other classes of American citizens.
"I want to give credit to Dan Restrepo saying that today's policy was a starting point -- before Gibbs cut him off.
"So, applause for the Cuban-American oriented efforts. Better than nothing -- but not nearly enough. And the precedent is worrisome and disconcerting.
"We did not open up relations with Vietnam by restricting travel to Vietnamese-Americans. We really should not be doing this with Cuba either."
Finally, none of this should come as a surprise. It's exactly what candidate Obama promised he would do in a speech in Miami just under a year ago: "After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people....
"It's time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It's time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That's why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.
"I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That's the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy."