Wed | Dec 7, 2016

Obama's Cuba opportunity

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM

With two years left in office and ineligible for re-election, Barack Obama perhaps has a sense of freedom. He can do things with the calculation about the potential personal costs in the next campaign.

That, in part, may have influenced the US president, in the face of the intransigence of his Republican foes in Congress, to resort to executive powers to attempt a partial fix of an American immigration system which everyone agrees is badly broken. In the process, Mr Obama is likely to have made gains for his Democratic Party among Latino voters, who will gain most from the stay on the deportation of millions of people who live illegally in the United States. If this action ultimately provokes a long-term, bipartisan legislative fix of the America's immigration policy, it will, in the end, redound to the legacy of the Obama presidency.

Mr Obama should use his new, perversely acquired freedom to attack another thorny issue that would benefit the United States, that is, potentially large hemispheric consequences that would similarly burnish his legacy. He should normalise diplomatic relations with Cuba, including - that can be accomplished by the exercise of executive prerogative - dismantling the 53-year-old economic embargo on Havana. At the same time, he should be making the case to Americans, and the new Republican-controlled Congress of the anachronism of the sanction regime.

Indeed, as Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), observed in Kingston last week, the basis of the embargo was questionable in the first place, but perchance they were valid then, they have long since disappeared. The Cold War has been over for more than two decades.

political mix

"Nobody believes that Cuba is a threat to the region," said Mr Insulza.

Indeed, America maintains this embargo because a handful of Cuban Americans have not found a way to extricate themselves from an old anti-Castro narrative and a few right-wing partisans continue to find it expedient to their political mix.

Yet, if anything, the economic sanctions provide a cover for the Cuban government to resist political reforms at home while removing America's voice as a legitimate one on events inside Cuba. At the same time, America's competitors have a head-start with the Cubans in terms of access to economic reforms being implemented by Havana.

Frankly assessed, the embargo failed; it has done more damage to America's interest than good. And it has, if not weakened, stressed relations in the hemisphere and America's central place in this fellowship. There is no gainsaying that it contributed to the unease against Great Power assertion that led to the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), from which the United States and Canada are excluded.

Moreover, the purposelessness of the embargo and the sense of US policy towards Cuba being like Miss Havisham's wedding dress in Dickens' Great Expectations was an impetus for the vote by OAS members to reverse Cuba's suspension from the organisation. Like Mr Insulza, we hope that Cuba is present at next spring's Summit of the Americas as a signal of Havana's acceptance of its full reintegration into the hemispheric family.

A formal return to the OAS demands something more. Mr Obama should send the signal by further relaxation of travel, communication and the sending of remittances

to Cuba by Americans and upgrading the interest section in Havana to an embassy.