Now that the election is over, the United States has a rare opportunity to do away with one of its most pointless and ineffective foreign policies – the embargo of Cuba – that is as obsolete as the “cool” 1950s and 1960s sedans still running on the streets of Havana.
Just a few weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama sat down with leaders in Myanmar, an international pariah for many years with a military responsible for thousands of civilian deaths. The United States now trades actively with Vietnam, which remains under the control of the same Communist Party against whom it once fought – and lost – a terrible war. The U.S. has a normal, albeit complex, diplomatic and commercial relationship with China, another Communist country.
Yet, Cuba is still treated as a pariah, a bizarre relic of the Cold War. I just returned from a visit there and realized that lifting the embargo would be to both countries’ advantage. Americans would have full access to Cuba’s rich culture and natural beauty, and some new trade and investment opportunities. Cuba would have expanded economic options, which it needs to improve the material well-being of its citizens.
The U.S. has had normal diplomatic and commercial relationships with regimes and despots of all stripes – from Mobutu in Zaire to Mubarak in Egypt. The list is long. So what makes Cuba so special?
Is it because it is so close to the continental United States? No – the U.S. has had a good, if testy, formal relationship with Mexico for many years, including when it was a one-party state.
Is it because Cuba poses a military threat? Maybe, once upon a time. But if Americans got over the Vietnam War, they surely can put the Cuban (or was that Soviet?) missile crisis behind them, especially since the U.S. now has quite a normal relationship with Russia.
What about a security threat? Arguably, almost every country could be wittingly or unwittingly harboring extremist plotters. Somehow, though, I don’t think al-Qaeda operatives are drinking mojitos on Cuban beaches. Cuba loosened its ban on organized religion some time ago, but imagining either the government or its people sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism is quite a stretch.
Is it because Cuba lacks economic opportunities for U.S. business? Granted, it’s not a potential powerhouse such as Russia, China or even Vietnam for commercial purposes. But the U.S. has maintained good relationships (and made money) with many small, poor countries. What’s one more?
Is it because Americans are standing on principle over Cuba’s human-rights record or strident rhetoric? It’s hard to argue this when the White House has entertained leaders of countries with even worse records and positions. Moreover, many of those countries do not have education, health-care or food systems that reach the poor. Cuba does, although increasingly it is a challenge.
Of course, America should care about human rights and, along with that, everyone should have access to adequate food, education and health care. But sadly, none of these reasons explain why the U.S. keeps a strict embargo on Cuba and has no diplomatic relationship with it.
No, the real reason is because of a small vocal minority (Cuban-American exiles and their families) who happen to be clustered in an electoral swing state (Florida) that gives them political clout. Some say the attitudes of the younger generation are softening toward Cuba. Does Washington really need to wait another generation or two?
The U.S. stand on Cuba is incomprehensible and only serves to look hypocritical and arbitrary in the eyes of a world that doesn’t understand the intricacies of American politics. Now that the election is over, there is a window of opportunity to open up a full commercial and diplomatic relationship. Mr. Obama should use the full extent of his executive powers to immediately relax restrictions, and Congress should pass legislation lifting the remaining legal obstacles.
It’s time to forget about old grudges and remember that the best way to convert an enemy into a friend is to embrace him. Instead of admiring Havana’s old cars, Americans should be selling them new ones.
Phyllis Pomerantz is a professor of the practice of public policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a former staff member of the World Bank.