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 –