Obama’s Small Step Towards New Cuba Policy

Danny Valdes Mar 23, 2009

By Danny Valdes

The Cuban embargo, now in its 47th year, has been U.S. policy for almost as long as the Castro regime has been in power. Codified into law by the Cuban Liberty and Democracy Solidarity Act (Helms Burton Law) of March 1996, it imposes a general ban on importing Cuban goods and requires that exporters give proof that no products of Cuban origin are used in their own goods.The U.S.-imposed embargo is condemned internationally by an ever-growing majority in the U.N. General Assembly, with votes against lifting it time and again consisting solely of the United States, Israel, and countries like Uzbekistan and the Marshall Islands. According to UNICEF, the availability of medicines and basic medical materials has decreased in Cuba as a consequence of the U.S. embargo against the island.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have also repeatedly called for an end to the embargo, saying it “has undermined freedom of movement between Cuba and the U.S. and restricted family reunifications.” Many advocacy groups also criticize the Bush administration for expanding the embargo and imposing more stringent restrictions on travel.

According to a statement released by the Washington Office on Latin America, “The Bush administration’s policy of tightening the embargo, and waiting until Fidel Castro leaves the scene, is misguided and counter-productive. Engagement with Cuba is a more sensible, more effective, and more humane strategy for promoting human rights and social justice.”

With Obama now in office, many are hoping that he will make good on his campaign promises to change U.S policy toward Cuba. Despite opposition from both sides of the aisle, the Obama administration was successful in passing a $410 billion spending bill that includes several reversals of Bush administration policies toward the island.

The bill permits U.S. citizens to visit family members in Cuba once a year instead of once every three years and additionally stops the appropriation of funds to the U.S. Treasury Department to prosecute those who wish to travel more often. It also provides for a general travel license for U.S. medical and agricultural companies, eliminating the cumbersome Bush administration policy that required approval for business travel on a case-by-case basis and often deterred companies from doing business with the island at all.

The omnibus bill, which Obama signed March 11, faced stiff resistance from Senate Republicans whose arguments rested on the laurels of conservative government spending. Two Cuban-American Senators, Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Mel Martinez (R-FL), spent more than a week campaigning against the bill because it ostensibly extends a helping hand to what they consider a brutal regime.

In a fiery speech on the senate floor on March 3, Senator Martinez said “The Cuban regime’s long record of expropriation, oppression, anti-Americanism and human rights abuses should be enough to give any reasonable person pause before stripping off the sanctions in place. I think we should support those who adhere to the rule of law, not those who flout it.”

The anti-Castro right, made up mostly of the Cuban-American lobby, has considerable influence in Senator Martinez’s constituency and most certainly expresses the same outlook on foreign policy toward Cuba that Menendez espoused during his campaign against the spending bill. The fact of the matter is that the political atmosphere in Washington is now aligning toward a more open relationship with Cuba. While the accusations of human rights abuses made against the Castro government are certainly merited, it is clear that economic sanctions only force more suffering on the people they seek to support. 

“Sanctions against Cuba do nothing but violate American values, cost American jobs, stain our image overseas, and breach our basic rights,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. “As Cuba enters a new era, so should America, and replace our policy of isolating Cuba with one favoring engagement, travel and trade.”

The opposition to the Cuba-related provisions in this bill and the general consensus in the Cuban-American community is based primarily on a Cold War ethic of anti-communism. It relies on rhetoric and ideology while ignoring the draconian effects wrought by the economic embargo on the island’s citizenry. The new administration has heralded a change of tone in U.S. foreign policy. Obama himself said that he is “prepared to take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between [both] countries for the last five decades” during a campaign rally he held in Miami.

Many are seeing this as a hopeful first step in a broader political initiative in Washington to reengage with Cuba. “The Administration has taken an important initial step to respond to the humanitarian needs of Cuban-American families,” said Geoff Thale, Program Director for the Washington Office on Latin America. “These actions are the work of a president and Congress responding to the will of the American people when it comes to U.S.-Cuba policy. Momentum is building for Congress to act decisively this year and end the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.”

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