Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    The Cuban question

    The Cuban question
    Barack Obama could ease the embargo, but Congress may slap sanctions on
    Dec 6th 2014 | From the print edition

    HAVING got immigration reform off his chest, will Barack Obama unsheathe
    his executive-order pen again to tackle another intractable subject on
    which Congress has blocked change for decades? The United States imposed
    an economic embargo on Cuba back in 1960 as Fidel Castro was forcing
    communism on his people. The embargo was meant to topple Mr Castro.
    Today he enjoys a tranquil retirement in a Havana suburb while his
    slightly younger brother, Raúl, runs the country.

    The embargo has not just failed; it has also given the Castros a potent
    propaganda weapon. It still has diehard defenders in Congress, which
    under a law from the 1990s is the only body that can repeal it. Even so,
    Mr Obama has some scope to change the policy. Indeed, in his first term
    he lifted restrictions on travel and remittances to the island by
    Cuban-Americans. There are several reasons why he might now want to do more.

    First, support for the embargo across America is crumbling. A nationwide
    poll taken earlier this year for the Atlantic Council, a think-tank,
    found that 56% of respondents favoured improving relations, while more
    than 60% of Latinos and residents of Florida did. Second, Cuba is itself
    starting to change. Under reforms launched by Raúl Castro, 1.1m Cubans,
    more than a fifth of the labour force, work in a budding private sector
    of farms, co-operatives and small businesses. Access to mobile phones
    and the internet has grown. Opposition bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez,
    though often harassed, have not been silenced.

    The third reason for action is that Cuba is one of the few issues that
    unites Latin America. The region is unanimous in believing that,
    notwithstanding its Communist regime, the island should be accorded a
    normal place in relations in the Americas. That consensus lies behind
    the decision of Panama to invite Raúl Castro to the Summit of the
    Americas, a gathering that it is due to host in April. The previous six
    summits have been restricted to the hemisphere’s democracies.

    This leaves Mr Obama with a dilemma. This is not so much over whether or
    not to attend. He probably will. Rather, it is whether to act between
    now and then to stop the embargo becoming an issue that dominates the
    summit. Mr Obama could, for example, issue a general licence for all
    Americans to travel to Cuba. He could also remove Cuba from the State
    Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, on which it sits
    alongside only Iran, Sudan and Syria. There are no grounds for Cuba
    still to be there. In October the Financial Action Task Force, an
    inter-governmental body, removed Cuba from its watch list of countries
    doing too little to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.

    But the administration has not yet asked the State Department to remove
    Cuba from its terrorism list. Although Mr Obama has little to lose from
    loosening the embargo, he also has little to gain. Raúl Castro’s
    economic reforms have stalled recently; he never intended them to lead
    to political change. The Cubans show no sign of being prepared to
    release Alan Gross, an elderly American aid worker jailed for illegally
    handing out telecoms equipment. They want to swap him for three Cuban
    spies serving life terms for snooping on hardline exiles in Miami.

    Even so, it would be surprising if Mr Obama did not take some action on
    Cuba before the summit. Oddly, pushback from the defenders of the
    embargo in Congress may take the form of sanctions on Venezuela, which
    provides the island with a subsidy (in the form of cheap oil) equal to
    perhaps 15% of its GDP. A bill to deny visas and freeze bank accounts of
    Venezuelan officials implicated in the repression of protests earlier
    this year is stalled in the Senate. Once the new Republican majority
    takes control in January, it is likely to move forward. Anthony Blinken,
    Mr Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, told a Senate
    committee on November 19th that the administration “would not oppose”
    this—a reversal of its previous stance.

    For anyone who wants to see change in Venezuela, this is depressing. The
    plunging oil price and economic mismanagement are weakening President
    Nicolás Maduro’s elected authoritarian regime. The crucial issue is
    ensuring that a legislative election next year is free and fair.
    Sanctions, however limited, will boost Mr Maduro’s declining popularity
    and give him an excuse to crack down, as some opposition leaders
    recognise. The lesson of Cuba is that pressure from Washington does not
    lead to democratisation. It would be a sad irony if the beginning of the
    end of one futile embargo coincided with the birth of another.

    Source: Bello: The Cuban question | The Economist –