By Susan Lee*
President Barack Obama has again this September the opportunity to take the first substantial step in steering the US foreign policy toward Cuba in a new direction and to start dismantling the five-decade old embargo against the island.
By mid-September, the application of the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) with regards to Cuba expires and, unless President Obama extends it for another year, such expiration would simply put an end to economic sanctions against Cuba, and give back to US citizens the right to travel freely to the island and to US companies the possibility to do business with and in Cuba.
Since 1977, every American administration has insisted that it was in the ‘national interest’ of the USA to maintain the application of the TWEA with regards to Cuba, which constitutes the bedrock for the Cuban Asset Control Regulations.
Year by year, they tirelessly repeated the already said, without understanding that the language of the world had changed. President Obama can now send a clear message and state the obvious: the 50-year-long economic sanctions against Cuba are not working, and would probably never work anyway.
The USA has maintained economic sanctions against Cuba since the early 1960s in pursuit of a definite objective: the demise of Cuba’s government and of its political system. Indirectly, the promotion and protection of human rights in Cuba formed part of the strategies and tactics employed to achieve that objective. The embargo has not only obviously failed its goal, but in human rights terms it is even having the opposite effect, both in Cuba and in the USA.
Current US legislation strictly limits the exports to Cuba of medicines, medical equipment and technologies developed under US patents, even from third countries. This means that the average Cuban is punished in what one would consider most essential, the possibility to receive adequate medical care and to have access to life-saving medicines and treatments, as a result of the political antagonism between the two governments. Similarly, the Cuban Assets Control Regulations issued in 1963 under the TWEA, forbids US citizens and organizations from engaging in any travel-related transactions involving Cuba, which in fact results in a general travel ban.
Travel to Cuba is permitted only with a special license issued by the US government or the consequences could be quite drastic, with lengthy criminal penalties (up to 10 years in prison) or hefty fines (up to $ 250,000 for individuals).
These restrictions represent an obvious violation of the right to freedom of movement of US citizens, whether they simply want to visit the country as tourists or to carry out business in the island.
Without party distinctions, US Presidents persisted in maintaining the restrictions because they believed it was in the “national interest” of the USA. That rigid and unilateral position has been criticized and rejected by the international community in many occasions, not only at the UN General Assembly but also at the latest Summit of heads of state of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, in 2009. In fact, the USA is the only country maintaining a regime of sanctions against Cuba, imbedded in its national legislation, and it is necessary to ask the question whether this is still realistic and in the interest of the USA and its people, or simply based on strong anti-communist feelings maintained alive within US politics by a fraction of the Cuban-American community.
The ultimate power to totally repeal the embargo against Cuba lies with the US Congress. There are currently several bills awaiting action at the House and the Senate which address the issue of the embargo, either by proposing to soften it or to totally lift it. One such bill would grant US citizens the right to travel freely to Cuba. This bill actually limits the powers of the President to impose the travel ban and, if passed by Congress, it could be interpreted as a direct attack against Obama’s presidency, since similar bills failed to be considered by legislators during Clinton’s or Bush’s administrations.
President Obama could face a win-win situation if he decides not to extend the application of the TWEA with respect to Cuba. Firstly, he would demonstrate that his administration can steer the country’s foreign policy and would give a clear sign to Congress that it is urgent to reverse an antiquated position developed in the height of the cold war. Secondly, he would allow US citizens to enjoy fully their right to freedom of movement allowing them to travel to Cuba.
President Obama has a unique chance to drive the US foreign policy toward Cuba out of the roundabout where it has been stalling for too long. The exit road is approaching and it is time to make a choice.
*Susan Lee is Programme Director for the Americas in the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.