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Cuba: Obama Eases Several Embargo Restrictions

On January 14, US President Barack Obama signed into law a series of small legislative reforms to the US embargo on Cuba. The reforms, detailed here, expand opportunities for travel from the US to Cuba, and will allow US residents to send remittances to “non-family members” on the island, provided that they are not senior government officials or senior members of Cuba’s Communist Party. The reforms will make licenses for academic, journalistic, and religious travel easier to obtain, and they will give US colleges and universities greater freedom to engage with universities in Cuba than they have at present.

Many in the US-Cuba blogging community hailed this as a small but significant step in improving relations between the two countries. The Havana Note’s Anya Landau-French, who has been following progress on the reforms closely, wrote:

As long as this isn’t the end of the road but a new beginning – as President Obama promised in April 2009 – these new travel rules offer hope for that elusive progress in U.S.-Cuban relations.

Landau-French also noted that advocacy by constituencies ranging from agricultural, to academic, to religious organizations, helped make these reforms happen. The statement issued by the White House emphasized the President’s goal of strengthening “people-to-people contact” between independent citizens in Cuba and the US. Phil Peters at The Cuban Triangle applauded this move. He wrote:

The increase in contact between Americans and Cubans will expand the flow of information and ideas, and it will increase the income of Cubans in the country’s expanding private sector.

“]”]

Jose Marti International Airport, Havana, Cuba. By DanishWolf (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0

Other influential voices on US-Cuba policy criticized the reforms, anticipating that their economic impact will only help to strengthen the Castro government.

To underline this point, Capitol Hill Cubans [en] compared the reforms to a “bailout” of the Cuban government, which is undergoing a severe economic crisis.

New Florida Senator Marco Rubio adamantly opposed the measures, describing them as “weakening” U.S. policy towards Cuba. He wrote:

I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes…It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people.

Commenting on Rubio’s remarks, El Yuma said:

Though he's just 39, on Cuba policy he seems committed to an approach of punishment and isolation that's been in place, and ineffective, since before he was born…I say: Instead of focusing solely on the ‘enrichment of the Cuban regime,’ why not focus on the empowerment of the Cuban people.

Across the Florida Straits, Cuban authorities and pro-government bloggers were skeptical of the intentions behind the reforms. Yohandry’s Weblog [es] opined that while they demonstrated that US residents want to engage with Cuba, they also reflect historically entrenched paradigms of paternalistic dominance over Cuba.

[La reforma es] expresión…del reconocimiento del fracaso de la política de los Estados Unidos contra Cuba y de que busca nuevas vías para lograr sus objetivos históricos de dominación de nuestro pueblo.

[…]

Aunque las medidas son positivas, se quedan muy por debajo de esos justos reclamos, tienen un alcance muy limitado y no modifican la política contra Cuba.

[The reforms are] an expression of recognition of the failure of US policy against Cuba, that finds new ways to achieve its objectives of historical domination of our people.

[…]

Although the measures are positive, they remain well below what is fairly deserved, they will bring very limited gains, and they do not change policy towards Cuba.

But other voices from the island have pressed for just such measures in recent months. In June of 2010, numerous bloggers, independent journalists, and civil society leaders in Cuba signed a letter urging the US Congress [es] to eliminate the travel ban and allow for agricultural trade between the two countries, arguing that this would help to improve the Cuban economy, and to strengthen relationships between people on and off the island.

The letter stated:

Compartimos la opinión de que el aislamiento del pueblo de Cuba beneficia a los intereses más inmovilistas del gobierno [cubano], mientras que la apertura sirve para informar y empoderar a los cubanos y ayudar a un mayor fortalecimiento de nuestra sociedad civil.

We share the opinion that the isolation of the Cuban people serves the unchanging interests of the [Cuban] government, while an opening would serve to inform and empower Cubans and to help further strengthen our civil society.

In a June 2010 post, blogger Claudia Cadelo [es], who was among those who signed the letter, wrote:

Quizás sea ingenuo pensar que estas flexibilizaciones promoverían la democratización de Cuba, sin embargo, lo contrario termina por ser -cuando se le mira fríamente- igualmente naif.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that this liberalization would promote the democratization of Cuba, but the contrary ends up being – when viewed coldly – equally naïve.

Voices on all sides of the debate acknowledge that these policies will have some impact on the island’s economy overall, as they will increase the flow of US dollars to Cuban people. Any improvement in Cuba’s current economy will likely benefit common citizens, government leaders, and everyone in between. But whether these will have any impact on political or human rights issues in Cuba, or help to improve US-Cuba relations on a greater scale, has yet to be seen.  Cuba Central commented that a change in in the United States’ approach to Cuba policy might be the only way to proceed, if the US truly wants to move towards a more open and mutually respectful relationship between the two nations. They wrote:

The U.S. needs to get out of the business of trying to overthrow or undermine Cuba’s government and to normalize the relationship through direct engagement.  Cuba is undergoing significant changes in its own right.  So should we.

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