WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
28 Mar 2013 | Commentary

Three Harbingers of Change in U.S. Cuba Policy

By Geoff Thale and Clay Boggs

The U.S. embargo has been in place for more than 50 years, so sometimes it is difficult to believe that it will ever end. But there are signs that change is coming. Here are three recent developments that are indicative of where U.S. Cuba policy is headed:

Rep. Kathy Castor announced on March 27 that she is opposed to the embargo, saying to the Tampa Bay Business Journal that “It is time for the U.S. to modernize its relationship with Cuba, lift the embargo and end restrictions on Americans' rights to travel to Cuba.” Rep. Castor is not the first member of Congress to oppose the embargo, but she is the first member of Congress from Florida to do so. Together with the election of Rep. Joe García (the first pro-engagement Cuban-American member of Congress) and President Obama’s stellar performance among Cuban Americans in November 2012, Rep. Castor’s announcement is an indication of where Florida politics are going.

Yoani Sánchez recently visited the United States. For years, the Cuban government refused to allow Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez to travel abroad. Sánchez, who has won numerous international awards for her journalism, was previously unable to claim her awards because of government restrictions. Cuba’s migration reforms, which removed the loathed “exit visa” and (mostly) normalized travel abroad for Cubans citizens, allowed Sánchez to travel to the United States, Brazil, and ten other countries. (Several other well-known dissidents have begun to travel abroad, as well). Her presence in the United States was a testament to the changes occurring in Cuba. In Washington, she spoke to a packed crowd at the conservative Cato Institute, where she criticized the Cuban government for restrictions on freedom of speech, but also criticized the U.S. government for maintaining the embargo, which, she said, gave the Cuban government a powerful excuse for its own shortcomings. Sánchez also met with conservative Cuban-American legislators Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who share her criticisms of the Cuban government but who have in the past shunned Sánchez for her position on the U.S. embargo.

News reports continued to indicate that the State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. U.S. Cuba policy has been codified into law, and ending the U.S. embargo or the travel ban requires congressional action. But there are many steps that the President and the Secretary of State can take on their own (both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have previously expressed and demonstrated their commitment to changing U.S. policy toward Cuba). Removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is one of the most significant changes that do not require congressional approval. It would reflect the reality that Cuba is not a sponsor of terrorist groups, thus helping to improve relations, and it would deprive congressional hardliners of a powerful tool in their efforts to harden U.S. policy toward Cuba. At a time when Cuba is playing a key role in the Colombia peace talks (which are making real progress), taking Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism would also send a message throughout the Western Hemisphere that the United States is serious about improving its relationship with Latin America.

There are major political and diplomatic obstacles to changing U.S. policy to Cuba; a policy that has been in place for 50 years cannot be transformed overnight. But these recent events are harbingers of change.

Geoff Thale is WOLA’s Program Director. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and members of Congress.
Clay Boggs is WOLA's Program Officer for Cuba and for Rights and Development.
(Photo by Zorilla)