In April, the Obama administration announced guidelines for new regulations instituted last January which now allow for “purposeful travel” to Cuba, as well as non-family remittances.
To some, this may seem like a baby step towards reconciliation between the two countries, but enabling college students, educators, religious groups, and tourists to go to a nation that has long been on our proverbial “least favored nations” list is a seismic shift in direction from that of his immediate predecessor. And, at a time when accolades for Mr. Obama are in short supply, this move deserves more attention than it’s getting.
As the White House press release in January says, Mr. Obama directed the State Department and other agencies to open up travel to Cuba in the hopes that it will “increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people,” as well as help bring about the independence of the Cuban people from their authorities.
The lifting of the travel ban to enable “people-to-people” contact, which allows for a wide variety of non-tourist travel, was something that was first instituted by President Clinton in response to the draconian Cuban policies of his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush.
But, the Obama freedom to travel to Cuba policy is more expansive than that of Mr. Clinton’s, and might hopefully be the prelude to a trip to Havana in 2012, 40 years after Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. Nixon’s trip was the catalyst for ending 25 years of isolation from that country.
Should a newly reelected president decide to visit Raul Castro, it might prove to be the defining moment of his foreign policy legacy which wouldn’t erase the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya any more than Nixon’s trip to China erased his military adventurism in Vietnam. That said, this trip would serve to restore credibility to the executive branch as a vehicle not solely for the commander-in-chief, but the statesman-in-chief, something Mr. Obama pledged to do in his first term.
It’s fair to say, since the Bay of Pigs when the total trade embargo against Cuba started under President Kennedy, there has been a shift of attitude towards Cuba that breaks down pretty much along party lines.
There is compelling evidence, too, that while it was JFK who first banned travel to Cuba, and rendered commercial transactions illegal for U.S. citizens, JFK was seriously considering dropping the embargo, as well as normalizing relations. On November 17, 1963, only days before his assassination in Dallas, Kennedy arranged for a meeting between French journalist, Jean Daniel, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. JFK reportedly asked Daniel to tell the Cuban leader he was ready to talk.
If Kennedy had survived, there is good reason to believe that he would have ended the trade embargo with Cuba, and opened up travel to and from Cuba. Upon his demise, everything reverted to the default position of treating Cuba as an enemy.
In December 1963, less than a month after his brother’s murder, then-Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, sought to end the travel ban in a memo that was classified until 2005. In the memo, Robert F. Kennedy called the travel ban with Cuba “inconsistent with traditional American liberties.” The memo evidently got misplaced in the Johnson chain of command.
But, it wasn’t until 1977 that President Carter was to pick up where Robert F. Kennedy left off when he ended the ban on travel to Cuba allowing U.S. citizens to spend money in that country, but concern for Cuban presence in Africa, and human rights abuses, precluded the Carter administration from ending the trade embargo altogether.
After Carter, Ronald Reagan wasted no time in inaugurating one of the most hostile policies towards Cuba since the Bay of Pigs. Reagan tightened the embargo, and barred travel to Cuba altogether. He also prohibited American citizens from spending money in Cuba, and forbid travel to the U.S. by Cuban officials, students, and scholars.
In the early 1990’s, the U.N. General Assembly was not pleased with American policy, and the U.S. embargo. The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to end the embargo in 1994. During his administration, President Clinton announced his people-to-people plan and, at one point, he also imposed penalties on any foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Clinton later allowed direct passenger flights, and let people send money to family members. President Obama appears to be following in Mr. Clinton’s footsteps on this one, though he can certainly blaze a new trail of his own.
While news outlets from the BBC to CNN have acknowledged the important step the Obama administration took last January, there is little talk of the guidelines that were announced on April 18th. Few are speaking up about a major policy shift that the BBC has called a “new beginning” in the troubled relations between the two countries
Like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is reacting to his predecessor’s Cuban policy. George W. Bush’s objective was regime change in Cuba as evidenced by his appointment of a Commission for Assistance to Free Cuba which was essentially a blueprint for Cuba after Castro. .
President Obama’s policy shift may not go far enough for many on the left for, though it allows universities, scholars, and religious organizations to freely travel to Cuba, it doesn’t end the embargo. The new regulations won’t please those on the right because it enables people to send money to Cubans who are not family members. But, no matter how you slice it, what will someday be viewed as a landmark decision, and major turning point, will be completely wiped out by a Republican victory in the 2012 presidential election.
One wonders how any rational candidates of either party can justify the U.S. misguided practice of continuing to isolate itself from one Communist country, Cuba, while lifting an embargo on China? What’s more, how can any reasonable candidate for elected office talk credibly about national security while, at the same time, insisting on maintaining a belligerent attitude towards one of its closest neighbors?
The Obama administration must now choose whether to be reactionary, and respond to measures of previous administrations, or to be progressive, and take a bold leadership initiative by recognizing the by restoring economic relations with a neighbor. It would be a dramatic, courageous shift for this administration to continue the thread that was dropped when President Kennedy’s life was cut short.
As President Kennedy once said, a return to normalized relations with Cuba is the only practical thing to do. A global economy requires partnerships that are ideology-free. Peace demands peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. The total U.S. embargo on Cuba in 1961 was an act of war. . We are not now at war with Cuba. A genuinely “new beginning” would be to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba once and for all. .
Should the president choose to do so in his second term, it will someday be seen as be his signature foreign policy achievement.
Jayne Lyn Stahl is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.