Arturo Lopez-Levy is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver and the Colorado School of Mines. He was a political analyst for the Cuban government until 1994 and Secretary of the Bnai Brith lodge of the Cuban Jewish Community between 1999 and 2001. In 2001 he emigrated to Israel, then moved to the U.S. to go to Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Arturo has returned to Cuba annually since 2006. He was recently in Havana, invited by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, to participate in the Catholic Social Week which was headlined by the Vatican's Foreign Minister.
The Path Forward
By Arturo Lopez-Levy
Unless the Obama Administration changes its approach to Cuba, a good opportunity will be lost to influence economic and political liberalization after the inevitable death of Fidel Castro. It is true that President Obama reversed Bush's worst policies, expanded Cuban-American travel to the island since May 2009 and brokered cultural exchanges between the two countries. These actions are constructive yet represent modest steps that will not alter the status quo.
Despite announcing a new outlook toward relations with Cuba during the Fifth Summit of the Americas, Obama has retreated to his predecessors' policy of waiting for change in Havana before dismantling any significant part of the failed embargo, wasting precious time to influence Cuba's politics during Fidel Castro's final days.
It does not make sense to say as Secretary Clinton did recently in Kentucky, that the embargo allows the Castro brothers to excuse their failures while supporting its continuance. A tit-for-tat concessions approach will not work. Since the arrests of seventy-five dissidents in the Black Spring of 2003, hopes of change in Cuba have depended on moderates within the government. If the Obama administration is unwilling to help the agenda of gradual liberalization by opening U.S. travel to Cuba in the coming months, the momentum associated with the President's popularity among reformers on the island will be squandered.
A way forward:
In the past, Cuba was a communist antagonist to the United States; today it is a country in transition. True, Raúl Castro has appointed some octogenarians to key positions, including the first Vice-president Jose Machado -- a move that suggests complacency. Yet this paralysis is a convenient facade. In fact, Raúl Castro is preparing the Communist Party and the Armed Forces for an eventual wave of reforms. Generals in their late forties and early fifties have replaced their old guard chiefs as commanders of the three regional armies. Likewise, the Politburo has promoted young members of the military high command and party czars from the provinces to its ranks. And, just before Fidel Castro fell ill the Communist Party reinstated the Secretariat as a collective leadership mechanism.
This April, in the face of increasing demands from all segments of society, Raúl Castro announced economic reforms, including the end of "extremely paternalistic and irrational state regulations," the release of more than one million workers from the government payroll, and movement toward partial privatization of Agriculture and urban transportation.
This situation makes a U.S. policy of engagement, designed to give space for such transformation, the most rational option. Cuban party officials and intellectuals realize that legitimacy will only be earned by addressing poverty and economic inefficiency in their country. They speak openly about emulating China through the expansion of private property, dialogue with the religious communities, and investment of repatriated earnings from Cubans overseas. Upon Fidel's death, Cuban leaders will decide policy that will influence decision-making over the course of the next decade. Most Cubans back an economy-first, politics-second approach to transformation. The best way for the United States to facilitate Cuban liberalization is to act ahead of the curve by exposing Cuban people to American cultural and educational influences.
U.S.- Cuba relations are settled in a low engagement path that is not favorable to U.S. interests. The worst part of the current U.S. policy towards Cuba is the prohibition to travel to the island banning the overwhelming majority of American citizens from having any influence there. Because Congress has other priorities to address ahead of the embargo, the President should invoke his constitutional foreign policy powers and allow all conceivable licenses for "purposeful" travel to Cuba through an executive order. Such action will unleash a critical mass of Americans traveling to Cuba by the way of museums, universities, and churches for humanitarian, religious and educational purposes.
The U.S. should not seek Cuba's democratization as a dramatic event -- like the fall of the Berlin Wall -- but instead should increase the probability of Cuban economic reform and liberalization through a long-term strategy that facilitates these processes rather than demands them. Opening U.S. travel to Cuba now will be more consequential in creating an atmosphere helpful to the reformers than in two or three years when the changes of leadership have already happened.