A new approach to engaging with Cuba should establish a program of assistance for independent civil society and license the transfer of funds for activities that address human rights, rule of law, micro-enterprise, and professional training. The “fundamental criterion” for determining policy should be whether it “benefits the Cuban people more than the regime,” said Carlos Pascual, Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.
He was speaking today at the launch of Cuba: A New Policy of Critical and Constructive Engagement, a report based on 18 months of meetings and simulation exercises featuring leading academics, opinion leaders and diplomats reflecting a wide range of opinion.
“If you want to be a player, you have to be on the field,” said Vicki Huddleston, former head of the US Interests Section in Havana, now a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Obama administration should revive the professional and cultural exchanges that had contributed to an earlier period of relative liberalization that saw the emergence of the Varela Project and the independent libraries.
On most of the report’s recommendations, President Obama could bypass Congressional opponents by using executive orders. “If he wants to reproduce the more open conditions in Cuba that led to the ‘Cuban Spring‘ of 2002 and Oswaldo Payá’s Varela Project, he could reinstate people-to-people and educational travel,” Huddleston and Pascual have argued.
“What’s a nice conservative like me doing here?” asked Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, highlighting the bipartisanship of the Brookings Cuba Advisory Group that produced the report. It was time to “take stock of the realities”, he said, to “stop fighting the past” and to focus on “helping the Cuban people to help themselves.”
“We have always done what Fidel Castro wanted us to do,” said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group. Easing travel restrictions would make repression more difficult and costly for the regime, he said, but the governing principle should be to help Cuba’s people “become the agents of their own change.”
The report provides a “realistic road map” for change, said Carl Meacham, Senior Professional Staff Member and adviser to Senator Richard Lugar, the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the process for effecting the necessary policy shift will be “fraught with peril” as domestic and international constituencies would seek to veto any move towards closer engagement.
The well-being of Cuba’s people and civil society will be enhanced, according to the report, through initiatives that “help to prepare the Cuban people for assuming a greater role in their governance”, including:
- Facilitating people-to-people contact between Cuban and U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
- Enhancing grassroots economic participation.
- Enhancing the civic participation of Cuban individuals and civil society through increased access to information and communications equipment.
- Supporting human rights activists, independent journalists and the development of Cuban civil society and grass-roots democracy.
The U.S. should promote the free flow of ideas and information, including music, film, and other art as provided by Representative Howard Berman’s 1988 Free Trade in Ideas Act.
“To engage the Cuban government and Cuban people effectively, the United States will need to engage with other governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs),” says the report.
It recommends a new approach to democracy and civil society assistance, advising that the U.S. government “should license U.S. non-governmental organizations and private individuals to transfer funds to individuals and civil society organizations in Cuba that work to foster a more open society”:
Although the U.S. government currently manages an assistance program for Cuba, it is limited by sanctions regulations and is narrowly focused. Much of the assistance-amounting principally to in-kind goods-is difficult to deliver due to the opposition of the Cuban government either to the type of assistance or to the groups or individuals receiving it. In order to better serve the needs of civil society in Cuba, the U.S. government should seek to obtain the approval of the Cuban government for an assistance program that would provide financial and in-kind assistance for activities that advance human rights and the rule of law, encourage microenterprise, and promote educational, and professional exchanges.
The report’s emphasis on engaging Cuba’s civil society is welcome. A recent Senate delegation and a high-level European Union mission to the island both drew criticism for failing to meet with opposition figures.