Obama and Romney Out of Touch on Cuba

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The Latin America Working Group is pleased to re-post this piece on U.S.-Cuba policy from our colleague at the Washington Office on Latin America, Geoff Thale. At LAWG, we are trying to maximize the opening recently made available by President Obama for increased travel to Cuba — people-to-people travel, educational travel, religious travel, cultural travel. We are encouraging and educating the public on “how-to” travel to Cuba. See our on-line brochure, “How-to Travel to Cuba” here . We are very aware of how tenuous this small opening is, and how far it is from “Travel for All” with no restrictions. And we are aware that with just a stroke of the pen from a new President, these advances could be erased. We ask for your help in preventing that roll-back. Sign up for our Cuba policy updates and action alerts here.  And “like” our “End the Travel Ban on Cuba” Facebook page here

The 2012 presidential race is effectively underway, and the two leading candidates have both recently made statements about Cuba. While they may differ in emphasis, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney clearly share one thing: they are both out of touch when it comes to Cuba and what U.S. policy should be towards the island.

Obama told Spanish language reporters on September 28th that he hadn’t seen a “genuine spirit of transformation inside of Cuba.”  Cuba, in the last eighteen months, has released all of its prisoners of conscience and has launched a set of economic reforms that – however imperfect their implementation– are moving the country toward a mixed economy with a dynamic private sector. In fact, Cuba’s government has begun a process of decentralization of governmental decision-making that will give local governments more power, and open participatory spaces. To ignore these changes is to set the bar almost impossibly high.  The President’s position continues to make the United States irrelevant to the real process of change that is going on in Cuba. As WOLA has made clear in its recent analysis, if anyone is failing to change, it is the U.S.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the apparent Republican front-runner, made a foreign policy speech at The Citadel last week, in which he inveighed against the Cuban-Venezuelan threat in the Western Hemisphere, asking whether “to our South, will the malign socialism of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, in tight alliance with the malign socialism of Castro’s Cuba, undermine the prospects of democracy in a region thirsting for freedom and stability and prosperity?” Does he really believe that Cuba—which is focused on internal reforms, decentralization, and governance issues in its own country—is a threat to democracy elsewhere in the region? Or that the U.S.—which wavered badly in its opposition to the coup in Honduras, and has been low-key at best in its criticism of human rights abuses there—sounds credible to our neighbors in Latin America?  Governor Romney says that he is a “classic baby boomer” and says that he “grew up in a world formed by one dominant threat to America: the Soviet Union and Communism.”  It sounds like his understanding of Cuba hasn’t developed much since those days.

Presidential candidates need to learn that much has changed in Cuba. They need to understand that U.S. interests would be served by a policy of engagement. And they need to listen to the voices of everyday Cubans and Cuban Americans about the human costs of political posturing. Whatever the outcome of the 2012 elections is, it is past time for U.S. policy towards Cuba to leave behind anachronistic ideology and willful ignorance; and move towards a productive engagement that is based on shared interests and realistic expectations. This is the only way that the U.S. can encourage political opening and human rights in Cuba.

Geoff Thale is WOLA’s director of programs. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and Members of Congress.