Learning to Salsa
New Steps in U.S.-Cuba Relations
By Vicki Huddleston Carlos Pascual
Brookings Institution Press
Copyright © 2010 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Introduction
If one compares outcomes to stated objectives, U.S. policy toward Cuba may be the most significant failure in the history of American foreign policy. An almost five-decade embargo and numerous attempts to isolate and undermine the Castro government have not produced democratic change. In February 2008, Fidel Castro successfully orchestrated a succession, handing power to his younger brother, Raúl. Today the United States has little leverage to promote change in Cuba. Indeed, Cuba enjoys normal relations with virtually every country in the world, and American attempts to isolate the Cuban government have served only to elevate its symbolic predicament as an underdog in the international arena. A new policy of engagement toward Cuba is long overdue.
Launched in September 2007, the Brookings project U.S. Policy toward a Cuba in Transition developed a strategic step-by-step program to break this stalemate of failure. This book was completed under the auspices of that project and reflects more than eighteen months of research, analysis, and debate conducted with a group of nineteen leading experts who formed the project's core advisory group. For the first time, opinion leaders in the Cuban American community joined with leading academics and international diplomats from diverse backgrounds and political orientations to seek common ground on the divisive and emotional issue of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
In the spirit of developing policy ideas that would support the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Cuba in which the Cuban people shape their political and economic future, the project featured a series of simulation exercises to identify critical components, both internal and external, that should be considered in the formulation of future U.S. policies toward Cuba. While the primary objective of the simulations was to facilitate a process of dynamic learning, the process also led the group to reach consensus on its recommendations for U.S. policy.
The fundamental premise of the project was that sustainable democratic change must come from within Cuba and that the American people and their government can serve as a catalyst to foster an environment in which the Cuban people will be able to determine how they wish to be governed. Encouraging broader and deeper knowledge through friendships and family ties will better prepare Cubans to participate in a transition away from the Castro era. In the three decades since 1980, an internal impetus for political change has dominated most power transitions in a number of countries; witness the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the consolidation of successful democracies in Central Europe. In China and Vietnam, change from within-though certainly not constituting "political change"-was what drove China's and Vietnam's willingness to engage globally, even as other domestic political actors sought to insulate both countries from global uncertainties. The pathways of political change may resemble wandering roots. But only such internal roots can eventually spread, grow, and nurture democratic change.
The timing of the project was based on the conviction that an unprecedented opportunity was presenting itself. The combination of change within Cuba and within the Cuban American community creates the most significant opening for a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Cuba since 1959. Demographic and ideological shifts inside Miami's Cuban American community underscore frustration with the embargo and a growing sense that a more effective alternative must be sought, one that shifts the focus of policy away from isolating Cuba to supporting the well-being and political rights of the Cuban people. Many in the Cuban American business community, too, seeing international actors who have already positioned themselves to take advantage of market openings, fear that they may be shut out from playing a role in a future Cuba. Polling within the community reflects that, across the political spectrum, Cuban American opinion is now converging in favor of increased engagement with the island at all levels, creating a growing political space to challenge traditional orthodoxy on U.S. policy toward Cuba. A Florida International University poll conducted in November 2008 in the aftermath of the American presidential elections found that, by substantial margins, a majority of Cuban American voters favor ending restrictions on their travel and remittances to Cuba and support a bilateral dialogue and normal diplomatic relations with the Cuban government (see appendix B).
Across the Straits of Florida, Raúl Castro remains committed to the continuation of the Revolution and the preservation of power. Yet Raúl also sees that he cannot succeed by means merely of charisma-he cannot exhort the Cuban people to continue to make sacrifices in the name of the Revolution unless he has an external enemy. Thus, Raúl initiated a process of incremental reforms in order to relieve pressure for political change. The more the United States is committed to engaging Cuba, the less Raúl Castro can use a presumed U.S. threat to justify his authoritarian rule. President Barack Obama is extraordinarily popular among Cubans. His changing tone in U.S. policy shifts the responsibility for how well or badly Cuba is governed from the United States and its policies to Cuba's leaders themselves. If Raúl is to consolidate his rule, he will need a stronger and wider base to govern from, and will need to mobilize the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Armed Forces to disseminate, explain, and enforce the decisions of the Cuban hierarchy. This imperative will be all the more important in an environment where reforms that permit greater economic openness may create new, unpredictable challenges to the status quo.
The international community should not delude itself. Raúl's preference is to be a Cuban Deng Xiao Ping, not Mikhail Gorbachev. His desire is to extend the life of Cuba's authoritarian government, not to preside over the crumbling of one of the world's remaining authoritarian regimes. The central question is whether the Cuban government will be able to control a modest opening of Cuban society, or whether incremental reforms will gather the momentum to unleash a process of irreversible change. The focus of U.S. policy and of international initiatives should be on this new internal dynamic in Cuba. How can U.S. policy be framed so as to give sustenance to actors within Cuba who have the potential to use these small openings to widen the prospects for change? How should the United States engage the international community to challenge Cuba to allow true democratic participation?
Thus, the objective of U.S. policy and broader international engagement with Cuba is not to flirt with Cuban authoritarianism but to challenge it. If the United States and the West hold up their values to be compared to Cuba's, which values will prevail? Freedom, openness, and the chance to pursue one's aspirations, or state control over political and economic life? These dual tracks of engagement and moral challenge have a solid grounding in history and policy. Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this Wall," while simultaneously using his direct contacts with the Soviet premier and working with other conservatives like Margaret Thatcher to build pressure to do so.
Through the lessons learned in the project simulations, Brookings advisers came to the unanimous conclusion that the United States should adopt a proactive policy of critical and constructive engagement toward Cuba. Its focus should be on facilitating change from within Cuba. Specific measures, the group concluded, should be phased in unilaterally by the U.S. president on the basis of U.S. judgments, in order to delink U.S. interests from attempts by Cuba to thwart or block U.S. objectives. The more the United States specifies expectations of reciprocal Cuban policy actions, the less the chance that Cuba will take those steps. Instead, the group created a consensus road map of executive actions comprising short-, medium-, and long-term initiatives that would allow the United States to align its policy with that of the rest of the hemisphere and restore normal bilateral relations with Cuba over time. The road map should serve as a clear statement of U.S. intentions to Cuba and the international community. The president of the United States, the group agreed, should decide how and when to move forward along this road map.
Over a period of eighteen months, project advisers carried out a series of six simulation exercises and discussions to enhance their understanding of the complex political realities in Cuba and the United States. Each exercise is described in a chapter of this book. Taking a forward-looking approach, the exercises sought to apply the advisers' expertise across a range of subjects to a series of hypothetical scenarios in which participants tested how different U.S. policy responses would affect a Cuban transition, and how the Cuban political hierarchy, independent civil society, and international and Cuban American communities might react to internal and external events that could logically be expected to occur in the near future.
By modeling and generating analyses of various strategic actors' and stakeholders' decisionmaking processes, the simulations identified factors that might influence the success or failure of specific policy options. Those lessons, explained at the end of chapters 3 to 8 in this book, provide policymakers with perhaps the most extensive and systematic set of policy exercises, deliberations, and resultant recommendations for Cuba policy that has ever been created. Whether or not policymakers agree with the specific recommendations, these scenarios reveal not only opportunities that can lead to more effective outcomes but also possible constraints and potential mistakes to be avoided.
The first exercise, in chapter 3 ("U.S. Policy: Constraints of a Historical Legacy"), tested the limits of a policy based on isolating Cuba to respond to major external developments that could open an opportunity for change inside the island. The past fifty years are a strong indicator that a continuation of an isolationist policy will not produce change in Cuba. If, however, change were to arise exogenously, would "isolationist orthodoxy" provide a useful means to help usher in a process of democratic self-determination in Cuba? To assess the possibilities and limitations inherent to this strategy, we simulated how the U.S. government might respond to an exogenous shock, Fidel Castro's death, if it had to stay strictly within the confines of policies prevailing during the George W. Bush administration. Assuming the role of cabinet secretaries at a meeting of the National Security Council, simulation participants aimed to formulate a diplomatic response and shape a public message while taking precautionary measures to avoid mass migration to the United States. Would instability within Cuba support or hurt the cause of democratic transition? How could the United States bolster the work of civil society leaders seeking political change on the ground? To what extent could the United States mobilize the international community to coordinate pressure to advance political reforms? One of the biggest lessons learned in the exercise was that the historical policy of isolation-characterized by little engagement with Cuba, little policy space to expand such engagement, and little international credibility to influence others-left the United States few levers to act effectively to promote change, even when opportunities arose.
The second exercise, in chapter 4 ("U.S. Policy: A New Strategy toward Cuba"), reviewed options for policy under a new U.S. administration. A replay of the National Security Council meeting explored policy options without setting predefined constraints; instead, advisers could propose policy options and evaluate their viability on their individual merit. Participants debated whether formulating a long-range strategic policy of engagement would be politically viable without positive Cuban responses. How might the United States formulate a unilateral strategy that balances support for economic liberalization with a commitment to keeping political reform and human rights on the table? Participants considered a new and important strategic reality: Cuba's potential to develop its oil reserves and sugarcane ethanol industry within the next three to five years. With energy revenues, Cuba's vulnerability to outside pressure, from either the United States or Venezuela, will diminish, and state power will be reinforced, bolstering the Cuban government's credibility to maintain political control. This reality suggests that the time for bold U.S. action may be now, before U.S. influence diminishes further.
The third exercise, in chapter 5 ("Understanding the Cuban Leadership"), called on participants to put themselves in the shoes of an inner circle of advisers to Raúl Castro as they meet to discuss how to consolidate their leadership and continue the next phase of the Revolution. Focusing on the internal dynamics, motivations, and decisionmaking processes of the new Castro government, the exercise assessed the possible political and economic strategies Cuba might adopt in the immediate future. Participants probed how the Raúl Castro government might secure its legitimacy and address citizens' rising expectations for improved livelihoods and economic opportunities without undermining the authority of the state. Will the government seek to broaden voices within the Communist Party and rule from a wider institutional base? How far could the government go to address grievances without inviting strong economic dislocations or eroding the social achievements of the Revolution and the socialist nature of Cuban society? How might Cuba reduce its single-source oil dependence on Venezuela, and what might be the costs of closer relations with the United States?
The fourth exercise, in chapter 6 ("Transforming Disparate Voices into a Dynamic Civil Society Coalition"), simulated a meeting of diverse representatives of Cuban civil society convened to analyze the potential of civic movements to advance change in Cuba. By evaluating the interests, strengths, and weaknesses of key sectors of civil society and testing potential motivations and points of division as they endeavor to unite in pursuit of a common agenda, U.S. policymakers will be better placed to craft more effective strategies to support a peaceful transition with Cubans defining the island's future. Advisers assessed ways that groups might infuse legitimacy and mass appeal into a broad-based movement, the pros and cons of accepting foreign support, and possibilities for constructively engaging disaffected segments of the population while preserving the interests of those most vulnerable to dislocations.
The fifth exercise, in chapter 7 ("Coordinating U.S. Policy with the International Community"), tested whether a group of key U.S. allies represented by foreign ministers convened by the U.S. secretary of state could come together to forge a coordinated approach toward Cuba. The aim was to assess potential spoilers and constraints to forging new directions, including ways to avoid a high-profile change in policy being perceived as rewarding the Cuban government. Participants debated whether the United States would be more effective in promoting democracy in Cuba if it were willing to work with the international community to place democracy and human rights in a wider context of shared interests that include trade, migration, security, the environment, and civil society. They assessed whether allowing Cuba to participate in international and regional organizations would provide incentives that would change Cuba's behavior by linking it more closely with international standards on democracy, transparency, and human rights. Finally, they examined American potential to forge a multilateral framework to manage an unanticipated breakdown of internal order in Cuba.
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