Thursday, February 5, 2009

Memo to the President from Julia Sweig

Memo to President Obama

Julia Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow and Director,
Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of
the forthcoming book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.

CIGAR AFICIONADO asked a leading Cuba expert to provide a road map for
improving relations between the United States and its island neighbor

Cigar Aficionado
February 2009

In the first six months of your presidency, you should launch an initiative
to put to rest the half century of mutual enmity between the United States
and Cuba. Doing so represents an opportunity of both major foreign policy
reward and low domestic political risk. Mr. President, a bold initiative
with Cuba, early in your presidency, will restore America's credibility and
demonstrate your political courage with the Cuban people, in the hemisphere
and across the globe. This memo will lay out why, provide several caveats to
guide your considerations, and outline a series of concrete recommendations.


The United States has maintained an economic embargo, a broad travel ban and
a host of punitive diplomatic measures against Cuba for nearly 50 years.
Keeping such policies on the books any longer serves no foreign policy,
national security or even substantial domestic political agenda: the status
quo undermines all three. I am not the first person to argue that the time
has come to open a different chapter with Cuba, nor are you the first
president who will read a memo arguing as much. In fact, you are the 10th
president of the United States to inherit a broken and utterly small-minded
policy toward Cuba. And you are the first president since Dwight D.
Eisenhower to take office when Fidel Castro was not at the helm on the

Unlike your predecessors, you campaigned on a program of making potentially
significant changes in America's approach to the island. You spoke of
talking directly with Raúl Castro, even while insisting on the importance of
freeing political prisoners, bringing democracy and human rights in Cuba,
and conducting appropriate advance work to ensure that talks address these
agenda items. You called for an end to restrictions preventing Cuban
Americans from visiting and sending remittances and other humanitarian
assistance to their families on the island. And you talked about promoting
people-to-people ties between all Americans and Cubans. You demonstrated the
political courage to embrace these measures not only among liberal
audiences, but in the state of Florida, where you saw that Cuban Americans
are no longer single-issue or single-party voters. You recognized that, like
many other traditional GOP supporters in 2008, Cuban Americans had lost
faith with the party over bread-and-butter middle-class issues, the economic
and financial meltdown, the war in Iraq and, notably, over Guantánamo. And
you won the state of Florida without a political debt to hard-liners in the
exile community, thus freeing the United States to craft a policy toward
Cuba, rather than toward South Florida.

Today's international context also distinguishes you from your predecessors
with respect to Cuba policy. In their own times and for their own reasons,
Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton each took notable steps to break
with the ineffectual policies of sanctions and isolation. But their limited
openings toward Cuba occurred at moments when America's credibility on the
world stage and among our allies was overwhelmingly positive. The Guantánamo
Bay Naval Base-under U.S. control since 1903-has long been a symbol of
yanqui imperialism for Fidel's revolution and for others on the left in
Latin America, but it was hardly the negative global symbol of American
power gone wrong that it is today. Indeed, with America's international
standing now severely diminished by the last eight years of unilateralism
and arrogance, the moves you make toward rapprochement with Cuba will have
resonance well beyond their impact on the Cuban people or their government.
In the Western Hemisphere, U.S. policy toward Cuba is universally derided as
ineffectual and an obstacle to the emergence of a more open, pluralistic
society on the island. An opening toward Cuba will be quietly encouraged and
loudly applauded by major U.S. allies in the region, such as Argentina,
Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia and Mexico,each of which possesses extensive
ties to the island and is paying close attention to developments in Cuba
during this 50th anniversary year of the revolution. Havana's brashly
ideological allies in the region-Bolivia, Nicaragua and, notably,
Venezuela-will find a big argument in their brief against the United States
(i.e. Goliath's penchant for picking on David) substantially undercut. The
dozen or so small island countries of the Caribbean, meanwhile, most of
which vote with Venezuela and Cuba at the Organization of American States
and the United Nations will have cause for reconsidering this practice.

Beyond Latin America, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara remain cult heroes for
many. Despite its human rights violations, Cuba's leadership has earned
grudging respect among multiple generations of intellectuals and political
leaders for its social gains and for its continued defiance of Washington.
In Europe in particular, U.S. sanctions have earned the ire of many for
casting their punitive reach on potential business and investment with Cuba.
After a five-year freeze, and under the leadership of Spain's prime
minister, José Luis Zapatero, the European Union has recently lifted
economic sanctions and commenced a broad ranging dialogue on civil and
political as well as social and cultural rights. A fresh approach to Cuba
will send a signal that the era of American hubris in foreign affairs, at
least in its own neck of the woods, may well be coming to an end. A
significant dimension of the collapse of America's standing globally during
the Bush years was that the United States was willing to use its power
willy-nilly without a healthy degree of respect for the views of others, as
the Constitution commends. For more than 15 years, the U.N. General Assembly
has voted nearly unanimously in support of a Cuban resolution condemning the
American embargo against it. Owning up to the failures of this policy and
sending a clear signal of a new approach will gain ready plaudits from our
allies, whose help we will need in confronting real, rather than
manufactured and domestically driven, national security challenges.

For many of the same reasons, American public opinion is ready for a change
as well, and a significant one at that. Nationally, polls consistently
indicate that a majority of Americans believe they should be able to travel
to and trade with Cuba and that Washington and Havana should reestablish
diplomatic relations. Even among your toughest audience, the Cuban- American
community, a consensus is emerging that current policy has failed and that
neither the Cuban nor the U.S. government has any business getting in the
way of individuals' desires to help family members on the island.
Cuban-Americans also favor an end to travel restrictions for all Americans,
not just for themselves. Such views have only become stronger in the wake of
the devastating damage wrought upon the island by hurricanes Gustav, Ike and
Paloma last summer and fall. Regardless, Cuban Americans today make up only
7 percent of Florida's electorate in national elections. Even as you
recognize the importance of Cuban-American family ties and perhaps, in the
future, as part of a new wave of foreign investment there, they are not the
only stakeholders in building a better modus vivendi with Cuba.


Before outlining the steps you can and should take to launch this
initiative, I first want to caution you about two issues.

The first is democracy. In short, do not pursue a bilateral opening with
Cuba out of the belief or hope that doing so will rapidly bring liberal
democracy to the island. There was little history of it before 1959-in the
past 50 years, even less. In the early 1960s, the United States could have
perhaps helped prevent some of the revolution's later radicalization by
finding a modus vivendi with a young Fidel Castro, who was leery of Soviet
power. A full-blown opening under Jimmy Carter, or even under George H. W.
Bush when the Berlin Wall fell, might also have provided space for reformers
within and outside government circles in Havana to make the case for greater
economic and political liberalization.

Indeed, had the first President Bush or even President Clinton during his
first term issued executive orders to lift the trade and travel ban and
restore diplomatic relations, Cuba might look quite different than it does
today, perhaps with a recognizable social democratic order, a more open
economy and ample state social services. By now, the United States might
well have been able to count Cuba among the Latin American countries where
the American commitment to democracy had played a constructive role. At this
stage, however, to think that an end to the embargo will speedily usher in
an era of multiparty elections and market capitalism would be to set your
administration up for failure. Cuba is today and will remain for some time a
one-party state with a controlled press and significant impediments to
individual freedoms. Thus, in your own mind, and publicly, it is best to
frame any moves toward Cuba as matters of American national interest. At the
same time, you should assert your belief that greater openness from the
United States has the potential to lay the groundwork for a more open
society on the island, where human rights and personal freedom can accompany
Cuba's long-standing aspirations to social justice and national sovereignty.

These values are shared by Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, but
their implementation would still stop well short of raising the unrealistic
expectation that a new U.S. approach can accelerate a full-scale democratic
and pro-market transition. A historical note worth considering: when Henry
Kissinger sent a few key deputies to secretly meet with Castro's envoys in
1975, he acted for geopolitical reasons first and foremost; he harbored no
illusions about the domestic impact within Cuba of an opening with the
United States. Nor did he demand preconditions before sending his emissaries
to talk with Fidel's. Neither should you. But be assured that a less hostile
policy will strengthen those within Cuba who are already making the case for
greater freedoms and economic liberties at home, but who are thwarted by
hard-liners whose positions are repeatedly reinforced by the reliable
hostility of U.S. policies. In that sense, by simply taking steps to remove
the United States as an excuse for domestic repression, and thereby helping
reduce the siege mentality that has left its corrosive mark, you will
contribute, over time, to change in Cuba.

Raúl Castro's First Year
The second major issue or caveat relates to what is happening in Cuba today.
In the aftermath of Fidel Castro's illness (announced during the summer of
2006) and Raúl Castro's election to the Cuban presidency in early 2008, it
looked to most observers that Cuban authorities would carry out a number of
potentially significant, though modest and modestly paced, economic reforms
aimed at increasing the personal freedoms and material conditions of Cuban
citizens. The words privatization or free market are seldom used in official
Cuban discourse about changes in the economy. But by decentralizing and
distributing land titles and otherwise promoting more free enterprise in the
agricultural sector, lifting previous caps on wages, and announcing his
intention of reducing the economic involvement and size of the state
bureaucracy, Raúl has clearly signaled a new era is emerging. At times, he
has sounded more like Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx, stressing the need
for Cubans to improve their work ethic, efficiency and productivity. In one
major speech, for example, he cautioned that "equality is not the same as
egalitarianism," which itself could be "a form of exploitation of the good
workers by those who are less productive and lazy," and warned Cubans not to
expect the state to foot the bill indefinitely for an enormous range of
goods and service. On balance, for the first half of 2008, Cuba exuded
confidence internally and internationally, with a diversified trade and
investment portfolio, the financial backing of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and
new investments from Brazil, China, Spain and Russia.

By the summer of 2008, as the global food and fuel crisis hit home, Raúl
began to moderate his tone, warning of impending belt tightening. Echoing
his brother's historic allergy to the market, he stressed the need to
protect the revolution's historical social achievements and maintain its
firm resistance to empire (aka the United States). Raúl was-and still
is-engaged in a balancing act, moving to gradually open the economy and
permit often brutally honest public debate about economic and social issues,
all while retaining political control and a major role for the state as the
dominant actor in national life. All of this unfolded with Fidel Castro
never far from the scene. Though physically out of the picture but clearly
in better health, his regularly published commentaries on domestic, economic
and international subjects appeared to both help Raúl manage public
expectations but also dampen the pace of some economic openings for which
many Cubans were hoping.

Then, at the end of August, and again in early September, hurricanes Gustav
and Ike ripped across Cuba, inflicting an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion
in damage. Much of Cuba's tobacco, citrus and coffee crops have been ruined,
while poultry production and fishing fleets were severely damaged.
Electrical grids in entire provinces were destroyed, as were more than
500,000 homes, displacing 2 million people and leaving 1 million jobless.
The disasters have also encouraged speculation that the urgency of producing
food especially could actually convince the government to accelerate private
agricultural modes of production and other forms of market activity, all
within the framework of socialism á la Cubana. Humanitarian and
reconstruction assistance has come in, from the likes of Venezuela, Russia,
China, Spain, Brazil and Mexico. But with the global financial crisis adding
a climate of risk and uncertainty to Raúl's tentative steps toward modest
reforms, not to mention the possibility that social pressures internally and
to migrate will increase, the Cuba you will likely engage will be focused on
recovery and reconstruction more, at first, than on reform and renovation.
As always, Cuba will be wary of the United States and unwilling to frame any
movement, domestic or bilateral, as anything approaching a concession to its
historic nemesis. The stability of Cuba's succession from Fidel to Raúl has
been smooth and remains so, a disincentive, some would argue, for you to
spend your energy on a new approach to the island. Changing policy toward
Cuba is strongly in the American national interest. It is the right thing to
do. And there are other excellent reasons to put your energy into a new Cuba
policy, as I have outlined above. But with Cuban officials warning of severe
food shortages well into early 2009, the last thing you need is the kind of
instability in Cuba that could prompt a mass refugee exodus. The time to
talk is now.


The remaining portions of this memo lay out what the executive branch can do
to fundamentally recast American policy toward Cuba. I also note where
Congress will be key. The goal of the steps outlined below is to set into
motion a process that, in the short to medium term, will bring about the end
of the trade and travel embargo while establishing the initial items for an
agenda of bilateral talks.

In the first hundred days of your presidency, you should issue an executive
order revitalizing and liberalizing the 13 existing categories of licensed
"purposeful" travel, which promote contact with the Cuban people for all
Americans, following the path chartered by the Clinton administration in
preparation for the 1998 papal visit to Cuba. At the same time, and
consistent with your campaign pledges, you should repeal all restrictions on
Cuban-American family travel and remittances imposed since 2004 by the Bush
administration. These two steps will not result in the complete elimination
of the travel ban. Congress will need to finish that job with legislation
eliminating all travel restrictions.

With your authority, you can also license the sale of goods and services
that serve humanitarian purposes, especially as pertains to public health
and all other materials that can assist in Cuba's recovery and
reconstruction efforts in the wake of the recent hurricanes. Since the Cuban
government is already the exclusive buyer of food under a 2000 law
permitting such sales between our countries, legal precedent and practice
exists for the government to also purchase other goods. You should allow
Cuba to purchase non-agricultural goods on credit and make it easier to
purchase American agricultural products using a more liberal interpretation
of the statuatory credit restrictions, a move already urged by
organizations. Congress can then eliminate the remaining anomolous credit
restrictions on agricultural sales.

Much hoopla was made over the answer you gave to a campaign debate question
about whether you would talk directly to the Cuban leadership. You were
right on foreign policy grounds to say you would, and to later stipulate as
a matter of principle that doing so in no way meant your administration
would condone Cuba's often egregious human rights practices and
authoritarian nature. On a number of occasions, Raúl Castro has indicated
his willingness to talk on a range of issues: the precondition he has
advanced is one of respect for Cuba's national sovereignty. Despite ongoing
antipathy, public recriminations and a variety of American laws aimed at
regime change, the United States and Cuba actually have a history of talking
with each other almost continually over the last half century-whether
through back channels, formal channels or third parties.

For example, after secret negotiations produced an immigration agreement in
1995 allowing 20,000 Cubans to migrate legally to the United States each
year, teams from each country met twice annually until 2004 to keep the
agreement on track. Likewise, to this day, the American and Cuban commanders
on either side of the gate at Guantánamo meet with their counterparts each
month. Both sets of talks demonstrate the capacity on both sides for
pragmatism, especially when it comes to the essentials of national security.
In this vein, your administration should "pursue talks on issues of mutual
concern to both parties, such as migration, human smuggling, drug
trafficking, public health, the future of the Guantánamo naval base and
environmentally sustainable resource management, especially as Cuba, with a
number of foreign oil companies, begins deep-water exploration for
potentially significant oil reserves." This recommendation of direct talks
is hardly controversial. It comes directly from the Council on Foreign
Relations and is echoed by a host of leading lights of foreign policy from
both political parties, individuals who recognize that diplomacy is not
about popularity and favoritism, but an essential tool for promoting the
national interest.

There is no pressing reason for you to meet directly with Raúl Castro at
this time. Too much groundwork lies ahead before such a meeting would make
sense from a foreign policy or domestic political perspective. Well before
any such encounter, the United States and Cuba need to embark on a series of
talks aimed at establishing common sense cooperation to serve both
countries' national interests. If a meeting between you and Raúl Castro
appears, down the road, to have potential to significantly advance American
interests with respect to Cuba, you should consider participating. And there
you can advance a discussion about democracy and human rights, as your
counterparts in Europe and Latin America have as well. In that vein, be
prepared to hear from Cuba about its own view of human rights in America, in
light of Guantánamo. I can assure you that, while clearly willing, Raúl
Castro exhibits no sense of urgency to meet with you and has a coterie of
senior advisers and experienced negotiators upon whom he will rely instead.

In the meantime, the relevant cabinet, national security and military
officers in your administration will have to inoculate the individuals they
task with shaping and carrying out these talks from the kinds of political
pressures that have in the past undermined attempts at conducting a
rational, non-ideological approach to American policy toward Cuba. In short,
if you want these talks to succeed, as they have in the past under
Presidents Carter and Clinton, senior officials in your administration will
have to guide them, making it known they are acting at your instruction and
under your scrutiny. Simply tasking the bureaucracy-long accustomed to and
hampered by ineffectual and politicized thinking on Cuba-to start the talks
will doom this initiative.

Unilaterally, you should follow the recommendations of terrorism experts in
both parties to remove Cuba from the State Department's list of state
sponsors of terrorism. The Reagan administration first put Cuba on the list
because of its support for leftist rebels in El Salvador. For purely
political reasons, the State Department has subsequently kept Cuba on the
list, even as Libya and North Korea have been removed. Then, the substantive
issues pertaining to American fugitives in Cuba or anti-Castro Cuban
terrorists, such as Luis Posada Carriles, now free in the United States, can
be addressed in bilateral talks involving the FBI, Justice Department and
their Cuban counterparts. Likewise, be prepared for American allies and for
the Cuban government to press the case for the release of the Cuban Five,
the intelligence agents who in the late 1990s infiltrated South Florida
exile groups, produced intelligence on pending terrorist attacks against
Cuba, and who, after the Cuban government passed the information to the FBI,
were promptly arrested, tried and convicted, in some cases, to multiple life

As with American public opinion generally, there is a latent bipartisan
consensus in Congress to lift the embargo. Legislation to lift travel and
trade sanctions passed between 2000 and 2002, but was stripped in conference
when the GOP leadership worked with Cuban- American Republicans in the House
and with the White House to prevent any liberalization of Cuba policy. Now,
with a stronger Democratic majority in the House and Senate, and especially
because of the severity of hurricane damage to Cuba, you can expect to see
legislation calling for an end to restrictions on Cuban-American travel and
remittances and on all American travel to Cuba. You can also anticipate
bills calling for a suspension of the embargo, its complete elimination or
possibly even the repeal of Helms-Burton. Indeed, leading Republicans in
both chambers have already joined their Democratic colleagues in advancing a
range of such initiatives. Likewise, there is bound to be legislation to
significantly boost aid to promote democracy, civil society and human
rights. These programs have rightly come under scrutiny for corruption and
ineffectiveness in recent years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should
work with the key appropriations and authorizations committees to cleanse
from the U.S. Agency for International Development all vestiges of programs
that smell of regime change. They are ineffectual, they hurt genuine
reformers on the island, they provoke the Cuban government to no apparent
end and they diminish the credibility of America's real bona fides on
democracy, as well as those of Cuban dissidents.

In your campaign you argued that you would keep the embargo in place to use
it as leverage to extract democratic reforms from the Castro government. Mr.
President, don't hold your breath. When you campaigned to open up
Cuban-American and people-to-people travel and said you'd pursue talks with
Cuba, you made sense to all but the most passionate hard-liners on this
issue. But when you said you would preserve the embargo as leverage, you
sounded as if you were pandering to them. As you know, there is no evidence
that any unilateral sanctions program anywhere in the world has ever been
effective in changing the internal character of the target government. So I
have to assume that you and your political advisers held back on the
ultimate disposition of the embargo in order to secure Cuban-American votes.

Mr. President, you won Florida without the votes of Cuban-American
hard-liners. Because of massive voter registration drives in that state,
registered Hispanic Democrats now outnumber Hispanic Republicans by 513,000
to 445,000. You won the state with the votes of 57 percent of Hispanics, up
from 44 percent for John Kerry in 2004. In Miami-Dade County, 55 percent of
Cuban Americans under 29 years old voted for you, while 84 percent of Cuban
Americans over 65 years old voted for John McCain, following the national
trend. And although 35 percent of Cuban Americans voted for you, a 10
percent increase over John Kerry's 2004 showing, it was the non-Cuban
Hispanic vote and other votes across Florida, especially in the
African-American community, that increased your margin enough to carry the
state. These gains are less a result of the needle you threaded on American
policy toward Cuba than on the strength of your overall platform and
campaign. Your triangulated position on Cuba prevented those Cuban-American
voters inclined to vote for you from voting against you and attracted
first-time American voters. McCain still carried most Cuban- American votes.

In congressional elections, where three Democrats supporting only family
travel challenged the three Cuban-American Republican seats in South
Florida, all three lost to the incumbents by wide margins. Their races were
less about Cuba than about the real issues working Americans face. Although
the three Cuban-American Republican hard-liners have been safely reelected,
they are now in the minority opposition. And with your victory in Florida
the result of a constellation of non-Cuban-American votes, your Cuba policy
need no longer defer to the Cuban-American political status quo of the last
50 years.

There are two Cuban-American Democrats in Congress, Senator Bob Menendez and
Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey, who well understand that current
policy toward Cuba has failed, and who, I believe, will support Cuban-
American and people-to-people travel, as well as direct talks on issues of
security, especially. They and their constituents will not support a
full-blown elimination of the embargo. Although they may well voice their
objections to openings beyond Cuban-American family travel and perhaps some
humanitarian trade, they know that their case for granting one group of
Americans a right denied to another will not hold up legally, or
politically. They will be unable to stop the Democratic leadership in the
Congress from pursuing a legislative agenda aimed at ultimately dismantling
the embargo. But they will attempt to assure that any legislation aimed at
relaxing sanctions is balanced by ample support for human rights and civil
society in Cuba. It will be important that whatever initiatives along those
lines they advocate are cleansed of the tainted democracy-promotion-
regime-change ethos of recent memory. And even then, these programs are
likely to remain highly politicized. Whatever their ultimate character, the
U.S. Interest Section in Havana must become a proper vehicle for diplomacy
and outreach to all Cubans rather than a conduit of cash aimed at inciting
would-be anti-regime activists.

In that light, with respect to travel and trade sanctions, I recommend you
take the steps your executive authority allows, and leave the rest to
Congress. If, five to 10 years from now, Cuba is more pluralistic and more
free, it will have been the result of Cuba's own choices. But by following
the proposals outlined here, you will be the president of the United States
who showed the political courage and foreign policy wisdom to create the
external conditions that will have made possible such a long-elusive

Julia Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow and Director,
Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of
the forthcoming book, Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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