Speaking to an event organized by the anti-Castro Cuban-American Foundation in Miami on Nov. 9, President Obama got the attention of both supporters and opponents of U.S. Cuba policy by saying:
"[W]e've started to see changes in [Cuba]. Now, I think that we all understand that, ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of the extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn't make sense."
On Nov. 18, Secretary of State Kerry made similarly intriguing but vague statements at a meeting of the Organization of American States.
Both sets of comments should be interpreted with caution. The group to which Obama spoke included extremely intransigent anti-Castro elements. Both Obama and Vice President Biden have been meeting over the last month with several key anti-Castro dissidents. So it is not surprising that the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are extolling his statement as vindicating their position demanding tightened sanctions against Cuba, while those who want a change in Cuba policy see the Obama administration as warning the anti-Castro forces that the U.S. may be about to move in a more conciliatory direction which they are not going to like, but will have to accept. We shall soon see.
Meanwhile, the negative U.S. policies toward Cuba keep causing problems. On November 26, the Cuban government announced that for the time being, its diplomats in the United States will suspend consular activities except for emergency and humanitarian cases. This is because the bank that Cuba was using, M&T Bank in Baltimore, had warned them on July 12 that it was going to cancel their accounts. The Cubans have not been able to find a U.S. or international bank that will open new accounts for them. Most observers agree that this is happening because banks fear that if they do business with the Cuban government, they run the risk of prosecution and huge fines imposed by the United States Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), as has happened on a huge scale before.
No bank wants to undertake such a risk. This will cost Cuba lots of tourism money and be very unpleasant for Cuban-Americans and others who want to go and visit their relatives in Cuba, because they will not be able to get their visas from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. They will certainly raise a political stink about this, aimed at the U.S. government and not the Cuban one. The current policy authorizing extensive visits by Cuban Americans to the island was introduced by Obama at the beginning of his term, and was justified by the administration as a means for changing things in Cuba by allowing more people-to-people contact. That policy is now threatening to unravel because of harsh anti-Cuba measures which remain in force, especially the continued listing, against all objective information and common sense, of Cuba as a "state sponsor of terrorism." The Obama administration says it is working with Cuba to find another bank to handle their diplomatic transactions, but no results are reported yet. Stopping diplomatic missions from having access to routine banking services is a violation of the Vienna Convention on consular relations.
Over the years, the original attempt to overthrow Cuba's revolution and its socialist government, by strangling the Cuban economy and thus creating a popular uprising, has failed. But so far, this has only led U.S. policy makers to heap more stupidities on top of the original arrogant mistake: The Torricelli Act in 1992, the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, the placement of Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list in 1982: each hostile step has encouraged a fanatically anti-Cuba faction within the Cuban exile community, within the Republican Party and even within the Democratic Party. These people fight tenaciously to prevent the U.S. government from even taking baby steps toward a more intelligent policy. OFAC does its bit by blindly implementing failed policies "efficiently," leading to a substantial tightening of the U.S. economic blockade over the past several years.
Some of the legal structure of the U.S. blockade against Cuba can't be changed at the initiative of the president, but require repeal by Congress. But the president still can, by executive action, take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This, and dealing with the issue of the Cuban 5, would be important first steps. To get them to happen, public pressure is essential.
Photo: The Obama administration has encouraged people-to-people exchanges with Cuba. In this photo, long distance swimmer Diana Nyad readies for her successful swim from Cuba to Florida on Aug. 31.(diananyad.com)