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Cuban engagement is way of modern world

A U.S. and Cuban flag hang from the same balcony in Old Havana, Cuba, (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)


On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a historic foreign policy shift aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. The parts of the deal the Obama Administration has outlined are forward-thinking, positive, and designed for the modern world rather than the world as it was during the Cold War.

The 52-year embargo on Cuba has not worked. While it was well intentioned, five decades of U.S. isolating Cuba has not brought down the communist regime and has failed to promote the emergence of democratic principles in the country. Instead of the embargo shortening the reign of the Castro brothers, the innocent civilians of Cuba have borne the brunt of many economic costs. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost a vital inflow of money. The embargo deprived Cubans of lower-cost food and other goods that can be purchased from the United States while the Castro family enjoys a comfortable life at their expense. An embargo on Cuba gives Castro a convenient excuse as to why Cuban citizens are struggling, a position echoed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

By normalizing relations with Cuba and potentially setting the U.S. on a path toward lifting the embargo on Cuba, a move only Congress can implement, Cuba would no longer be able to use the U.S. as a scapegoat for its own deficiencies and oppressive tactics. A modernized Cuba puts more pressure on the regime to reform, as more citizens are able to gain access to information and emerge from under the oppressive blanket of the Castro regime, and allows international organizations to identify and denounce human rights violations.

The embargo was ineffective because we were doing it alone — without international partners backing up our sanctions, there was no hope of affecting change in Havana. Despite a 2011 Cuban estimate that the U.S. embargo has cost the Cubans $1 trillion since its enactment, Fidel and Raul Castro’s rule has not been seriously threatened. This stands in stark contrast to comprehensive and truly international sanctions regimes against Iran and Russia, which are crippling the economic system of their respective targets and producing results.

The U.S. will engage with Cuba to advance U.S. national security interests on issues as diverse as immigration, counternarcotics, environmental protection, and human trafficking. By engaging with the communist country, we can help guide its people towards democracy by our example. As President Obama stated, “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values, and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”

While the President alone cannot rescind the embargo, he can ease certain restrictions under his executive authority (a point that even instant opponents of rapprochement, chief among them Senator Marco Rubio, have conceded). Under the terms of the deal, Cuba has thus far agreed to relax restrictions on Internet access — which only five percent of the country currently has — and release 53 political prisoners in addition to an imprisoned U.S. intelligence asset as well as American humanitarian Alan Gross.

In exchange, the U.S. will ease travel restrictions on the country and allow U.S. and Cuban banks to cooperate. The U.S. will also strengthen diplomatic relations with Cuba by re-establishing its embassy in Havana, and Secretary of State John Kerry will review whether Cuba should be left on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

These moves will help pave the path toward the lifting of the embargo, a proposal that is already facing vigorous opposition by some in Congress. Senator Rubio’s claims that President Obama’s announcement is a “lifeline for the Castro regime” that will allow the regime “to become a more permanent fixture” are perplexing. While Cuba will undoubtedly benefit from the normalizing of relations with the U.S., the 55-year rule of Fidel and Raul Castro has already been a firm fixture in Cuba and the embargo has done nothing to loosen the regime’s grip on power.

Instead of bolstering the Castro regime, engagement is an opportunity to defeat it without punishing innocent Cuban civilians. By approaching Cuba with allies as diverse as the Vatican and Canada, the Obama administration underscores that engaging rogue states alongside our partners is the most constructive way to bring them into the international fold. The president’s decision to defy the status quo and reopen relations with Cuba took political courage, but it underscores the simple logic that progress is made by engaging rather than ignoring states that we have serious disagreements with.

As a veteran of the Iraq war, I have seen the costs associated with unilateral decision-making and I am inspired to see us pursuing multilateral engagement rather than stubborn aggression or isolation. President Obama set this country on the path toward a coherent policy on Cuba — a move that was long overdue.

Derrik Gay is a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Iraq vet, and a JD/MBA student at Northwestern University. He is also a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Views expressed are his own.