There’s no reason to be surprised by President Obama’s decision this week to renew the U.S. embargo with Cuba — he was sticking the script followed by presidents since John F. Kennedy.
Not doing so would throw a wrench into his efforts in Congress on universal health care. Without even arguing pro or con on the issue, let’s just state the obvious — the president is dealing with pressing matters that take front-burner attention right now. Cuba and Latin America are way down on the list of problems to deal with.
All this despite the emptiness and loneliness of the embargo. Many Americans don’t realize the oddities of the U.S. stance — it can’t be called a policy. Something like 178 other countries have normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Even with the embargo, the United States is Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner — there are exemptions on food sales to the island.
A majority of Cuban Americans now support an end to the embargo. Some of the most vociferous supporters of a change are midwestern Republicans, who want to open new markets for their constituents. And it should be made clear: Those suffering the most are the Cuban people, not the Cuban government.
President Obama’s decision therefore may be disappointing to the coalition of Americans who think it’s time to acknowledge the failure of the 50-year economic embargo of Cuba. But they won’t scream as hard as the other side would if the president endorsed a new policy. Obama can’t stand potential defections of support for the health care bill.
Cubans in Cuba and Miami tend to see their own issue as the only issue. But even they know the reality.
The Cuban government has expressed doubt for some time that Obama would strike up a new, close friendship with the Communist country. Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba’s National assembly, told me in Havana this year that he hoped, but didn’t think the new president would live up to his billing as an agent of change.
Any idea of quick change comes from an early flurry of talk that Obama might be willing to drop a travel ban to Cuba affecting most U.S. citizens. There was a lot of noise in the spring when Obama suggested changes in U.S. Cuban policy. But he’s taken minor steps other than to eliminate restrictions imposed by George W. Bush on Cuban Americans traveling and sending more to relatives on the island.
Actually, there were two small changes that are worth mentioning. One is that the United States and Cuba have begun holding regular occasional meetings on immigration and other matters. So there is some level of official contact between the countries. There was also an odd contact point recently when Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico paid a visit to Havana and said he held unofficial meetings with high-ranking Cuban officials. It’s not clear whether he was carrying water for the president or not, and it’s also not clear who he really met with, besides Alarcon.
The real point person on Cuba and Latin America should be Arturo Valenzuela, who President Obama has designated as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs. He’s not on the job yet — Congress is stalling on confirmation hearings.
Latin America, as usual, is an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy planning.
- Peter Eisner
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