By William M. LeoGrande
A little over six months into President Obama’s second term, the administration is giving hints that something is afoot in relations with Cuba. Back in 1994, Fidel Castro told a group of former U.S. ambassadors that he needed a two-term U.S. president to normalize relations with Cuba because no first-term president would have the political courage to do it. Could Barack Obama be that president? Efforts to engage with Cuba during his first term were frozen after the 2009 arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross. Despite evidence that Gross had violated Cuban law, the administration insisted that Gross had done nothing improper and demanded that he be freed immediately. When he wasn’t, the U.S. position hardened: there would be no improvement in relations with Cuba, not even on issues of mutual interest, until Gross was released. Gross is still in jail four years later; the non-negotiable demand strategy failed utterly.
The second Obama administration appears to be trying something new. In May, the Department of Justice dropped its insistence that René González, a member of the “Cuban Five,” serve out his probation in Miami rather than Cuba. Shortly thereafter, Cuba granted Alan Gross’ request to be examined by his own doctor. In late May, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with the United States, met in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson – the highest-level U.S. official to meet with a Cuban diplomat in several years. After this reportedly constructive encounter, the State Department announced the resumption of bilateral talks on immigration (suspended since January 2011), and on re-establishing direct postal service. Working-level diplomats have resolved most points of disagreement on a postal accord, a Coast Guard search and rescue accord, and an oil spill containment protocol – although the U.S. side is loath to use the word “agreement,” lest it stir up trouble with a small but loud contingent in Congress.
Although U.S. policy is no longer completely paralyzed by the predicament of Alan Gross, it remains tentative, cautious, and incremental – far from the bold stroke that Fidel Castro was hoping for from a second-term president. In May, the State Department again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in its annual report, although the rationale read more like a justification for removing Cuba from the list—a move reportedly under discussion by the Obama team. When the administration sent its FY2014 budget request to Capitol Hill, it again requested $20 million for “democracy promotion” in Cuba, continuing programs like the one that got Alan Gross arrested. Radio and TV Martí, which cost U.S. taxpayers $28 million a year, continue to beam programs below Voice of America standards to a shrinking radio audience and non-existent TV viewers. (Cubans call TV Martí “la TV que no se ve” —No-See TV.) If Obama had the mettle to make the bold stroke, these provocative, ineffectual programs would be on the chopping block in tough budgetary times. More positively, the president could take the initiative by appointing a special envoy to talk turkey with Havana, and he could promote a U.S. policy debate on Cuba that’s long overdue. Incrementalism will only take us so far. Real change in U.S.-Cuban relations requires vision and courage – qualities Obama displayed on comprehensive health care and immigration reform. After all, as Lyndon Johnson once said, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”
Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.