Should the U.S. be extending olive branches to Cuba?

Turmoil in Cuba and The Way Forward

Should the U.S. be extending olive branches to a communist regime?

By Sebastián Arcos and Elise Labott. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.


Should the United States accept the Communist Cuban regime and move toward normalizing relations with Cuba?

By Sebastián Arcos – Associate Director, Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University

President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March of 2016, the first sitting U.S. president to do so since 1928. The visit was a dramatic gesture of Obama’s policy pivot toward the island nation from one of confrontation and sanctions to one of engagement. In a thoughtful speech delivered in Havana to a select crowd that included General Raul Castro, Obama summarized his objective saying, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” 

From Havana, President Obama traveled to Argentina for another state visit. While in Buenos Aires, Obama made an important stop at the memorial for the victims of the “Dirty War” waged by the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Alluding to the cooperation between the U.S. and the Argentinian military junta in those years, Obama said, “There’s been a controversy about the policies of the United States early on those dark days, and the United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies as well… Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for. When we’ve been slow to stand up for human rights, and that was the case here.”

The Double Standard

In a matter of 48 hours,  Obama went from celebrating engagement with a Marxist regime in Cuba, to regretting engagement with a right-wing military regime in Argentina. How can it be wrong to engage with a right-wing military dictatorship, but all right to engage with a Marxist military dictatorship?

American collaboration with the Argentinian junta ―albeit brief― is rightfully considered a dark episode in our foreign policy. The Argentinian junta ruled for seven years employing particularly atrocious repressive tactics and is considered responsible for the death and disappearance of roughly 9,000 people. The U.S. ignored the blatant crimes of the Argentinian junta because it was the expedient thing to do in the context of the Cold War. By doing so, the U.S. became an accomplice in those crimes.

The Castro regime has ruled Cuba for over 60 years and is considered responsible for the death and disappearance of thousands, the incarceration of tens of thousands for political reasons, and the exile of almost two million people (17% of the population). We do not know the actual toll of Castro’s regime ― the longest totalitarian tyranny in the Western Hemisphere ― or the full extent of the atrocities it has committed, because it remains in power. Still, The New York Times called President Obama’s engagement policy with Cuba “historic” and “courageous”.

I use this comparison to illustrate what I believe is a double standard that permeates most arguments for engagement with Cuba. To be clear, I understand engagement as it was defined by the “Obama Thaw”, an unconditional normalization of relations between the U.S. and communist Cuba. Proponents of normalization with Cuba would argue that engagement is justifiable because the goal is regime change, while U.S. engagement in 1976 Argentina was supporting a criminal regime to remain in power. While I completely agree that our goal in Cuba should be regime change, I believe the claim that engagement will lead to regime change in Cuba is nothing more than a rationalization to justify a policy for ideological reasons rather than for its proven efficacy.

Engagement: A Means to an End? 

Engagement as a tool to achieve regime change ― change through one-sided rapprochement ― has a long history of failure. Ostpolitik in West Germany, the Sunshine Policy in South Korea, U.S. engagement with China, Canadian and European engagement with Cuba, and more recently, President Trump’s personal diplomacy with North Korea. Rather than causing regime change, all these experiments ended up cementing harmful regimes in power. 

The right U.S. foreign policy should be effective―advancing our national security, core interests, and fundamental values such as democracy and human rights. As former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright put it, “…we do this because it serves our interests, […] because it reflects the kind of people we are, and because it is right.”  Engaging the Argentinian junta might have served our interests at the time, but it certainly did not reflect the kind of people we are. Engaging Cuba today does not meet any of these standards.

While our policy of sanctions has not achieved regime change in Cuba, it has served our interests in several ways. By denying resources to the regime, we curtailed its capacity to export mayhem. It is not hard to imagine how much more damage Castro would have inflicted ― around the world and especially in our hemisphere ― with the additional resources provided by U.S. investment and financing. Because of our non-cooperation with the regime, no one can accuse us of being complicit in their crimes. Rebuffing a criminal regime is the most consistent way to live up to the ideals that we stand for.

The Undeniable Ugly of Cuba’s Government 

A strategy of engagement unavoidably entails cooperation. Cooperation might be inevitable or even desirable when dealing with powerful competitors like China or Russia, but this is hardly the case with Cuba. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “Cooperation is not an exercise in good feeling.”  Beyond the nice editorials, engagement with Cuba today inevitably means cooperation with a totalitarian regime that stole our property, threatened us with nuclear missiles, opposes U.S. policies everywhere, and befriends every one of our enemies around the world. It means cooperation with a regime that systematically denies its population the most fundamental human rights. Engagement will only reward obduracy and, like it or not, will turn us into accomplices of such a regime. To paraphrase Secretary Albright, accepting the communist regime in Cuba would not serve our interests, would not reflect the kind of people we are, and would be wrong.



A Realistic Approach to the U.S. Foreign Policy with Cuba

By Elise Labott – Columnist, Foreign Policy Magazine

There is no binary choice between  “normalizing” relations with the Cuban regime – restoring full diplomatic ties with Cuba – or sanctioning the country into economic collapse in the hopes of forcing out the regime. Neither sanctions nor unconditional engagement have proven to be effective tools in either changing the character or forcing the end of a rogue, repressive regime. 

Engagement as a policy to achieve regime change may have a “long history of failure” but history is also littered with harsh sanction policies which have failed to achieve the same goal. For example, the author refers to South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. Clearly, Seoul’s attempts to engage the North did not put an end to the country’s nuclear program – which was the actual goal of the effort, not regime change. However, decades of sanctions have neither curbed North Korea’s nuclear ambitions nor challenged the strength of the Kim family dynasty. Quite the contrary: Pyongyang’s nuclear development continues to progress and Kim Jong Un is still solidly in power, with his influential sister also taking on a greater role in the family business. 

The Obama Administration’s Approach

President Obama argued that the Cuban people would ultimately be able to pursue political change, in part, if they were connected to a flood of Americans who would give them more opportunity to interact with the rest of the world. President Biden’s administration also made this argument recently when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba. 

President Obama also argued that making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and invest in its nascent private sector would also bring in revenue, in turn making life less desperate for the Cuban people. Indeed, the loosened travel restrictions significantly improved the Cuban tourism sector including bed and breakfast businesses and restaurants across the island. The Cuban government may have benefited from the move, but the Cuban people profited from both the money and the hope of a better future. 

The Trump Administration’s Approach

President Trump’s decision to limit the number of flights to Cuba and tighten restrictions on sending money to Cuban families on the island, in order to prevent the government from taking a cut, dried up opportunities for Cubans abroad to help loved ones back home with vital cash payments, medicine, and food to loved ones. Trump also enacted even tougher sanctions that plunged the island’s struggling economy further into crisis, deepening the divide between Cubans on either side of the Florida straits and only served to harden the regime’s position. 

Cuba’s communist regime has been able to weather multiple economic and political crises since taking power 60 years ago by blaming the U.S. embargo on the island. Now, Cuba is facing the worst economic crisis in decades, compounded by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cuban people were served a toxic cocktail of severe hardships this summer: food shortages, skyrocketing inflation that has made goods even more expensive, and hours-long electricity blackouts. On top of that, a record number of COVID cases strained the health services to the point where even basic medicine and healthcare were unavailable. 

Protests in Cuba

Those hardships created a growing boldness among civil society, driven by younger dissident Cuban artists, to make their demands known in an unprecedented show of defiance. As Cuban anger turned toward President Miguel Díaz-Canel, anti-government protests spread like wildfire across the island. Unlike in past protests, Cubans were protesting their crushing poverty and lack of food, as well as, their lack of democratic freedoms. These protests offered a glimmer of hope that the regime’s teflon may be wearing down.  

As expected, the government launched a heavy-handed crackdown but as the protests spread and criticism grew, Díaz-Canel changed his tune. In a nod to the people’s hardships, the government lifted restrictions on travelers, allowing them to bring in unlimited food, medicine, and other essentials without paying customs. The protests did not spread into a movement that could have ultimately seen the long-awaited end of the dictatorship. Someday, they might. If the U.S. doesn’t get in now, it will not have any credibility to help shape what comes next.

Potential Impacts of Economic Sanctions

Further economic sanctions will not only create difficulties for the protesters and play into the regime’s hands, but they could also cause an influx of migrants to the United States. The opportunities for Cubans created under the Obama administration caused many to reconsider the possibility of migrating because they were able to imagine a future on the Island. However,  between October 2020 and June 2021, the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted more than 20,000 Cuban adults and close to 5,000 families trying to enter the United States along the border with Mexico –  an exponential increase from the previous years. 

A Middle Ground Solution in Cuba

Addressing the acute humanitarian hardships that drove the Cuban people into the streets and supporting their desire for freedom do not need to be mutually exclusive policy options. I propose a middle way, one between the failed embargo and the all carrot, no stick Obama-era thaw.

Renewing access to remittances and loosening travel restrictions to the island would help people cover their basic needs, while the U.S fashions a creative policy that engages the Cuban people, fosters privatization, and boosts civil society.  

The internet is a good place to start. The internet has exploded in recent years on the island and social media has been an empowering tool for civil society, largely thanks to agreements with companies like Google and YouTube as a result of Obama’s outreach. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, advocated using U.S. satellite-based technology to provide internet access, aiming to overcome Cuban government efforts to cut the internet and stop the flow of information and communication between the protesters.

The United States can also speed up the process of Cubans on the island. After President Trump halted the process of applications for the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program in 2017, it produced a massive backlog of applications. The program has not been reinstated yet despite President Biden’s promise on the campaign trail to do so.

The alternative – ramping up sanctions against Cuba to force an economic collapse, assuming it will be blamed on the regime – is a risky gamble and one that is distinctly unAmerican. U.S. sanctions have historically been used to change the behavior of a regime, not to topple it. 

Supporting these ideas do not make me “pro-regime,” nor do they ignore the systematic repression successive Cuban governments have engaged in over decades. They do, however, make me a realist who believes that while one should strive to be both righteous and effective, it is better to be effective if you must choose between the two. Proposing a policy that puts the Cuban people at the center, even if it means dealing with the Cuban government in a limited way, stands a better chance at promoting economic and political changes on the island than the failed regime-change policy Washington has pursued since the 1960s.  



This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

Sebastián Arcos
Associate Director, Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University | Website | + posts

Before joining CRI as Associate Director, Sebastián A. Arcos was Associate Director of Development of the School of International and Public Affairs and Assistant to the President of Florida International University. A Cuban national, he joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights (CCPDH), the first independent Cuban human rights organization, and was part of the CCPDH team that met with the Special Group from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that visited the island in 1988. He was part of the Freedom House delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva and advised the U.S. Department of State on issues concerning human rights in Cuba between 1998 and 2000. He holds a master's degree in Public Administration and a Bachelor's degree in International Relations.

Elise Labott
Columnist, Foreign Policy Magazine | Website | + posts

Elise Labott is a  columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and leading journalist covering U.S. foreign policy and international issues. Before joining Foreign Policy she was CNN’s Global Affairs Correspondent. Elise is the founder of Zivvy, a digital media platform that aims to engage, inform and inspire youth to solve today’s most pressing global challenges, and an adjunct professor at American University's School of International Service. Elise also serves as a global ambassador for Vital Voices, an organization that empowers female entrepreneurs and social activists around the world and is on the advisory committee of Global Kids DC, a program which introduces high school students in underserved communities to international affairs. She is also a member of the Council on Foriegn Relations.

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