The impasse between Washington and Havana over the arrest of U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, cited by some as a reason to further shut down our Cuba policy options, actually presents us an opportunity to change our outdated and self-defeating approach toward the island, including shedding a range of “democracy promotion” programs aimed at “regime change.”
These programs and their generous funding — $200 million during the past decade — were the centerpiece of the George W. Bush administration’s Cuba policy and far different from the “new beginning” with Cuba that President Barack Obama promised just weeks after his inauguration. They are relics from the Cold War and are based more on U.S. domestic politics than on what constitutes rational and sound foreign policy.
For more than five decades we have been obsessed with getting rid of the Castro brothers. Our government has tried to invade Cuba, assassinate its leader, crush its economy and support organizations and programs designed to overthrow the regime. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve this quest. By any measure, our policies have failed miserably.
If anything, our policies have been used as an excuse to justify the failures of the Cuban system and strengthen Havana hardliners opposed to change. Every time a U.S. lawmaker gets up to “rattle the sabers,” the Cuban people, including most of the pro-democracy activists, recoil. All the huffing and puffing U.S. lawmakers engage in may play well at fundraisers in the United States but do absolutely nothing to improve the lives of the average Cuban family, let alone help support human rights or freedoms in Cuba.
The Obama administration, to its credit, has relaxed restrictions on travel for Cuban families and allowed remittances to be sent to people on the island. But, at the same time, it continues poorly conceived, poorly supervised programs reminiscent of failed intelligence operations of decades past specifically aimed to force a change in regime. The Associated Press recently reported several disturbing aspects of these programs, which warrant more critical Congressional oversight and investigation.
Gross is imprisoned in Cuba for what the White House calls “democracy promotion.” The Cubans claim Gross knowingly violated Cuban law and was there to help efforts to undermine the government. Nothing in the AP story suggests that Gross was engaged in espionage or targeting Cuban state security. I do not know all the details of what actually happened — in fact, it’s difficult to get a trustworthy reading about this project — but the AP report raises serious questions about whether USAID should have been involved in activities that placed at grave risk Gross and the individual Cubans with whom he met.
Many nations help support greater political dialogue and human rights inside Cuba — but not under the toxic mantle of “regime change,” which contaminates the integrity of every Cuban it touches. However well-intentioned the efforts of the Obama administration, these programs cannot be fixed. They need to be scrapped altogether as they are hurting, rather than helping, the Cuban people.
We need programs that openly engage and support the Cuban people through transparent education and cultural exchange programs, micro-lending for small entrepreneurs and lifting all restrictions that limit free travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. The Obama administration has allowed some expansion of licensed people-to-people contact, but the travel ban — the only one the United States enforces anywhere in the world — only punishes U.S. citizens, our very best ambassadors of American values. Send more teachers, doctors, lawyers, faith-based leaders, students and, yes, even politicians to Cuba. How better to encourage free enterprise than by allowing U.S. businesses to engage Cuba?
Cuba needs to do much more to respect and protect human rights as the recent tragic death of Cuban dissident, prisoner and hunger striker Wilmar Villar demonstrates. But isolating ourselves from the Cuban people and sending people to carry out projects intended to destabilize the Cuban government have done nothing to promote political space.
This is the time for the U.S. to directly engage the Cuban government on issues of our national interest — immigration, drug interdiction, counterterrorism, human rights and the environmental concerns regarding oil drilling off Cuba’s coast. Their agenda should be on the table, too — the embargo, travel and the “regime change” programs. And we should and must talk about releasing Gross.
It is time for a more mature — and effective — policy toward Cuba. Productive engagement can do more for the values and causes we hold so dear than just more of the same.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) is a member of the Rules and Agriculture committees.