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A Summary of the Debate on the Direction of U.S. Policy on Cuba

Over the years, although US lawmakers have agreed on the overall objectives of US policy toward Cuba – to help bring democracy and respect for human rights to the island – there have been several schools of thought about how to achieve those objectives.

Vintage Cuba poster
Cuban Tourist Commission, 1949. Source: US Library of Congress

Some have advocated a policy of keeping maximum pressure on the Cuban government until reforms are enacted, while continuing efforts to support the Cuban people. Others argue for an approach, sometimes referred to as constructive engagement, that would lift some US sanctions that they believe are hurting the Cuban people and move toward engaging Cuba in dialogue.

Still others call for a swift normalization of US-Cuban relations by lifting the US embargo. Legislative initiatives introduced over the past decade have reflected these three policy approaches.

Dating back to 2000, there have been efforts in Congress to ease US sanctions, with one or both houses of Congress at times approving amendments to appropriations measures that would have eased US sanctions on Cuba.

Until 2009, these provisions were stripped out of final enacted measures, in part because of Presidential veto threats. In 2009, Congress took action to ease some restrictions on travel to Cuba, marking the first time that Congress has eased Cuba sanctions since the approval of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

In light of Fidel Castro’s departure as head of government and the gradual economic changes being made by Raúl Castro, some observers had called for a reexamination of US policy toward Cuba.‘s observations on the most current legislation on Cuba:

S. 299/HR 664 The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act

s. 299/hr 664 the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act
s. 299/h.r. 664 the Freedom to Travel to Cuba bill would allow Americans to travel to the one country they are currently not allowed to travel to: Cuba. We pride ourselves in having basic freedoms across the world and travel is one of them. Our policy should be updated to allow Americans freely. 81% of Americans support allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba including 71% of republicans and 90% of democrats, according to a CBS news poll.
s. 299/h.r. 664 the Freedom to Travel to Cuba bill is an important piece of legislation to the agriculture sector.
Cuba imports 60-70% of its food, costing the cash-strapped government $2 billion a year. As Cuba moves to become the most popular tourist destination for Americans and other countries, our agriculture and food producers will want to play a role in supporting the island.
s. 299/h.r. 664 the Freedom to Travel to Cuba bill is an important piece of legislation to the manufacturing sector.
US manufacturers produce components necessary to facilitate every part of travel. As the demand by American travelers increases, US manufacturers will be part of infrastructure upgrades, producing and fortifying cars, planes, and ferries that are all expected to see increased demand as a result of new engagement in the Cuban market.

In this new context, two broad policy approaches were advanced to contend with change in Cuba: an approach that called for maintaining the US dual-track policy of isolating the Cuban government while providing support to the Cuban people and an approach aimed at influencing the attitudes of the Cuban government and Cuban society through increased contact and engagement.

The Obama Administration’s December 2014 change of US policy from one of isolation to one of engagement and moving toward the normalization of relations has highlighted divisions in Congress over Cuba policy. Some Members of Congress lauded the Administration’s actions as in the best interests of the US and a better way to support change in Cuba, while other Members strongly criticized the President for not obtaining concessions from Cuba to advance human rights.

Some Members vowed to oppose the Administration’s efforts toward normalization, while others have, as in the past, introduced legislation to normalize relations with Cuba by lifting the embargo in its entirety or in part easing some aspects of it.

In general, those who advocate easing US sanctions on Cuba make several policy arguments. They assert that if the US moderated its policy toward Cuba – through increased travel, trade, and dialogue – then the seeds of reform would be planted, which would stimulate forces for peaceful change on the island.

Cuban girl in redThey stress the importance of avoiding violent change in Cuba, with the prospect of a mass exodus to the US. They argue that since the demise of Cuba’s communist government does not appear imminent, even without Fidel Castro at the helm, the US should espouse a more pragmatic approach in trying to bring about change in Cuba.

Supporters of changing policy also point to broad international support for lifting the US embargo, to the missed opportunities for US businesses because of the unilateral nature of the embargo, and to the increased suffering of the Cuban people because of the embargo.

Proponents of change also argue that the US should be consistent in its policies with the world’s few remaining communist governments, including China and Vietnam.

On the other side, opponents of lifting US sanctions maintain that the two-track policy of isolating Cuba, but reaching out to the Cuban people through measures of support, is the best means for realizing political change in Cuba. They point out that the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 sets forth the steps that Cuba needs to take in order for the US to normalize relations. They argue that softening US policy without concrete Cuban reforms would boost the Castro government, politically and economically, and facilitate the survival of the communist regime.

Opponents of softening US policy argue that the United States should stay the course in its commitment to democracy and human rights in Cuba and that sustained sanctions can work.

Opponents of loosening US sanctions further argue that Cuba’s failed economic policies, not the US embargo, are the causes of Cuba’s difficult living conditions.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba.

A Summary of the Debate on the Direction of U.S. Policy on Cuba was last modified: June 17th, 2016 by Cuba Journal