WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
11 Mar 2016 | Commentary

Trade and Engagement with Cuba: What the U.S Government Should Do This Year

President Obama’s historic March 21-22 trip to Cuba will be a milestone in the administration’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations. Engagement with Cuba enjoys popular support in the United States. Even in today’s often partisan environment, polling reveals that Democrats, Republicans, and Cuban-Americans all approve of the administration’s recent actions on Cuba.

Over the 15 months following the announcement of the policy shift, the two countries have made major progress on issues like deepening trade, facilitating travel, and even cooperation on professional baseball. But while the Obama administration has made major strides to date, there are a number of actions that it can still take between now and the end of the year that would decisively move the relationship forward, even as Congress considers whether to end the embargo.

The president can advance trade, travel, and human rights dialogue between the two countries, taking steps which are in the best interest of both American and Cuban citizens. As the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has outlined in a new policy memo, and a set of explanatory notes, these steps are vital to fully update U.S.-Cuba relations out of the Cold War for the 21st century.

The memo identifies 14 concrete steps President Obama could take that would bring new opportunities for U.S. businesses, open new avenues for U.S. philanthropy, enhance U.S. standing in Latin America, and bring mutual benefits to the American and Cuban people in the realms of security, the environment, and health. President Obama can still:

  1. Further boost economic, philanthropic and medical and research ties

The opportunity cost to U.S. exporters of maintaining the embargo has been estimated at around $1.2 billion per year, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. Although the administration has taken actions to mitigate these costs by easing economic regulations and removing some barriers to making deals on the island, many banks and businesses looking to gain a foothold in the Cuban market find current U.S. regulations difficult to navigate. President Obama can still make business, banking and trade easier for U.S. companies by making further changes to Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) and Department of Commerce regulations governing exports to Cuba, imports from Cuba, investments in Cuba, and processing trade deals between Cuba and third countries. These changes will encourage high profile business deals, creating economic ties that would be politically and legally difficult to sever, while also encouraging additional companies that are waiting to see how the first movers operate. These deals will benefit the economies of both countries.

A number of U.S. philanthropic organizations are looking to fund charitable, environmental, cultural, and social activities carried out by public and private actors in Cuba. A general license permitting foundations to operate without restrictions in Cuba would open new opportunities to support important projects, allow U.S. foundations to work with a broad range of actors in Cuba, and build ties between U.S. and Cuban organizations.

U.S. citizens are also missing out on cutting-edge medical advances made by Cuban doctors and researchers, such as extensive research on tropical diseases like Zika and a promising lung cancer vaccine. While the vaccine hasbeen approved for lab research in the United  States, current U.S. regulations towards Cuba mean clinical trials can’t move forward. Allowing pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical trials of Cuban-produced pharmaceutical products would mean Americans could access Cuban medicines, while a general license authorizing joint ventures between U.S. companies and researchers and Cuban enterprises and researchers would increase business and improve healthcare in both countries.

  1. Allow Americans to travel to Cuba

Americans are clamoring to travel to Cuba. In 2015, more than 600,000 Americans visited the island. Of those, roughly 150,000 had no family ties there, up from 91,000 in 2014. Nearly 60 percent of Americans favor ending the travel ban. However, current law mandates travelers to go on pre-packaged group trips that are expensive and follow a strict itinerary. The president can issue a general license that allows individuals to conduct people-to-people travel on their own, requiring them to maintain records showing they engaged in a full schedule of people-to-people activities. This would inject more capital into Cuba’s private sector and address a clear violation of U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel.

  1. End ineffective, Cold War-era programs and policies that give Cuba special treatment

Leftover Cold War-era policies still complicate the U.S.-Cuban relationship. These include a program that allows Cuban doctors working abroad to immigrate to the United States, counterproductive “democracy promotion” programs that fund groups hostile to the Cuban government, and a policy of special treatment that allows Cubans to immediately enter the United States and collect public benefits. These policies unnecessarily breed distrust and create tension throughout the hemisphere without contributing to positive change on the island. Ending these programs would drastically improve U.S. standing in Latin America and in Cuba by clarifying that the U.S. harbors no interventionist intentions.

President Obama can do his part by ending the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program, which has lured some 7,000 highly-valued doctors away from Cuba; suspending and reviewing “democracy promotion” programs, such as the infamous “ZunZuneo”project; and by having the Attorney General end preferential treatment for Cuban migrants arriving at U.S. borders, ordering the same field interview for asylum eligibility determination that Central American and all other migrants receive.By applying the same policies to Cuba as it does to other countries, the United States would greatly reduce tensions with the Cuban government, creating space for more productive dialogue on other topics, such as human rights.

Public statements would also go a long way to signal that this new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations has an endgame of progress and prosperity rather than political instability. While in Cuba, President Obama should give a speech saying that the Cold War is no longer guiding the relationship between the two countries and that the United States’ goal is not regime change. Instead he should indicate that we seek a normal relationship that we hope will contribute to a better life for Cubans, along with more freedom for political debate and association. A public statement from the President or the Secretary of the Treasury signaling U.S. sympathy for Cuba’s re-engagement with global financial institutions would send another important message. The Cuban government, financial institutions, and investors would see that the United States is committed to long-term development and prosperity in key sectors such as tourism, agriculture and infrastructure.

  1. Engage with more actors to progress on human rights, civil liberties and open political debate

As New York Times editor Ernesto Londoño recently noted, the boundaries of individual liberty in Cuba have expanded since the United States started normalizing relations with Havana, and Cubans have started to “debate once-taboo subjects and criticize their government more boldly.” The United States can pursue a new approach to Cuba that is less prescriptive, but more constructive in opening space for political debate.

The administration should continue to assert our values, and urge Cuba to cease the harassment of dissidents and expand civil liberties. Perhaps more importantly, the State Department, U.S. embassy and other agencies should begin to engage with a broader range of actors in Cuban society. They should reach out not just to opposition political figures and hardline government critics, but to a much broader set of actors with a wide range of political and social views. It behooves the United States to engage with Cuban organizations and leaders, with and without links to government, which are more representative of Cuban society. The Obama administration should also encourage exchange between civil society groups in the United States and their counterparts in Cuba. Civil societyon the island includes religious leaders, social organizations, academics, artists, entrepreneurs and cooperatives who pursue cultural, social, artistic, and other goals. Greater dialogue among all of these actors would create space for political debate and help to bridge ideological divides. It would reduce political tension and generate opportunities that benefit the Cuban people and support human rights and individual liberty on the island.