There is a lot of excitement about President Barack Obama’s lifting of key U.S. sanctions on Cuba, but allow me a word of caution: the current U.S. love affair with the island is likely to wane after the U.S. November elections, no matter who becomes the next U.S. president.
The reason is simple: it takes two to tango (or cha-cha-cha, in this case) and Cuba is doing very little to reciprocate for Obama’s major loosening of U.S. sanctions on the island. In addition, the next U.S. president will see the opening to Cuba as an Obama legacy issue, which he or she will probably not spend much political capital to keep expanding at any cost.
When he first announced his opening to Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, Obama said — rightly — that the previous U.S. policy of sanctions against the island had failed, and that opening U.S. trade would empower Cuban entrepreneurs and begin to create an independent civil society in Cuba.
But now, more than a year later, even State Department officials who negotiated the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties are frustrated.
Earlier this month, Cuba’s government-run weekly Trabajadores reported that the number of self-employed workers in Cuba has dropped to 496,400, from 504, 600 six months ago, according to a Jan. 12 report on the Cubaencentro website.
The Cartas desde Cuba (Letters from Cuba) blog written by Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg on occasion of the Dec. 17, 2015, first anniversary of Obama’s announcement, reported that “internally, the paralysis is big.”
He added, “During 2015, not one single new cooperative was legalized, there were no permits for new categories of autonomous work, retail markets where nowhere to be seen, and the much-publicized exchange rate unification continues to be shelved.”
Politically, Cuba’s military dictatorship continues to prohibit independent political parties, freedom of assembly or independent media.
Over the past year, the number of arbitrary detentions of peaceful oppositionists has increased significantly, to a record 1,447 in November, according to the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Yoani Sanchez, a courageous Cuban journalist who publishes her 14ymedio.com daily online and from abroad because the Cuban regime will not even allow her to publish it on the Internet in Cuba, wrote on Jan. 6 that “television, radio and newspapers remain under the strict monopoly of the Communist Party.”
Sanchez added, “Because of censorship, only those who agree with the government and applaud actions by government officials have access to the microphone. They never interview anyone who dares to differ.”
Despite the lack of movement on Cuba’s side, Obama announced on Jan. 27 a third round of unilateral measures to further loosen the U.S. trade embargo on the island. The latest measures will allow more U.S. visitors to travel to Cuba, and expands authorized U.S. exports to the island.
Obama’s re-establishment of ties with Cuba has turned the island into an object of curiosity. Tourism to Cuba — not only from the United States, but everywhere — has exploded. According to Cuba’s official figures, tourism to the island rose to 3.5 million in 2015, a 17.4 percent increase from the previous year.
Cuban art, Cuban cuisine and Cuban music have become fashionable, and the object of thousands of news articles. Comparatively, few journalists visiting the island look into human rights abuses, or into the more than 3,130 executions attributed to the Castro regime since 1959 by the CubaArchive.org research group.
My opinion: As I stated in other columns, the previous U.S. policy of isolating Cuba didn’t work and Obama’s new approach deserves to be given a chance. Until now, however, it has not worked.
It has only helped Obama cement his legacy as the U.S. president who opened relations with Cuba. That explains why Obama forged ahead with it this week, and may continue to do so by traveling to the island in coming months.
But I don’t see the next U.S. president — even if it’s Hillary Clinton — investing much political capital on expanding an Obama legacy-building project, barring concrete moves by Cuba to open its society. The ball is in Cuba’s court, and its window of opportunity is narrowing.