Cuba – one small step for Obama….
The announcements from the White House last week about Cuba have excited some interest, but (and Obama’s team clearly planned it this way) not huge waves. Several commentators have suggested that the steps taken – allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island and send remittances, as well as some liberalisation on telecommunications – have been nugatory. Fidel Castro himself, while welcoming the moves, said that Obama needed to go further and scrap his country’s illegal trade embargo altogether. And of course he should. But this week’s moves make scrapping the embargo – until recently fairytale politics – a realistic prospect. Philip Stephens, writing in the Financial Times, suggested that the US trade embargo was unique to Cuba and uniquely American, and that the steps Obama has taken were very small and mostly symbolic. I think he’s wrong on all counts.
First, the trade embargo on Cuba, while uniquely far-reaching, was not unique in the Cold War. The US prohibited the sale of computer technology to Eastern Bloc countries for many years, and the reach of such moves was just as extra-territorial as the Cuban trade embargo – UK companies suffered if they exported technology to the USSR and its satellites. And, undermining the suggestion that that embargo was designed to punish dictatorships, it lasted for several years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, holding back growth and development when Eastern European countries needed it most.
Second, the US trade embargo on Cuba is clearly the most extensive and damaging action taken against Cuba, but it is not unique, and the suggestion that EU countries are exasperated by it (as they are, most of them including even the UK at the height of ‘the special relationship’ regularly voting against the US at the UN on the issue) must be tempered by the fact that the EU common position on Cuba still extends beyond what would usually be done where the EU has concerns about democracy and human rights abuses. British Ministers, for instance, will not visit Cuba until the Government allows them to meet with dissidents. Does this policy apply to China, or Saudi Arabia, or any other regimes where the EU has significant trading interests?
But third and most importantly, I think Philip Stephens is wrong to suggest that Obama’s moves are of limited importance. I think they are huge, and signal the beginning of the end of the US blockade – ironically, as he does admit, started by Obama’s preferred role model, John F Kennedy.
For a start, they throw the US policy on Cuba into sharp reverse, and even if they are moving backwards only slowly, that’s a hugely significant change from the progressive tightening of sanctions and ramping up of regime-change rhetoric that George W Bush oversaw.
This latest move is a declaration of independence from the older generation of Cuban émigrés in Miami (the younger Cubans are likely to applaud it). Depending on the reaction to these first small steps – and one can also question just how small a step the allowing of remittances will prove to be: remittances generally dwarf aid flows in other countries – the Obama administration will have the cover to progressively abandon the rest of the Cold War armoury. Christopher Caldwell, writing a day later in the FT from an avowedly right-wing perspective, admitted that the raison d’etre for the embargo was now dead.
Opponents of the blockade have more reasons to be cheerful than at any time in its history, and it is high time that the EU also looked at ramping down its Common Position to allow more contact and more trade with Cuba.