Obama's Cuba Policy Deserves a Cigar

Ambassador of Goodwill.

Photographer: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopen an embassy in Havana amounts to "unconditional surrender," opponents say. Just look at the way the Castro regime continues to crack down on dissidents.

They have it backward. Normal diplomatic relations are not some kind of reward to Cuba for making progress; the way to get Cuba to change is to restore normal diplomatic relations. The Obama administration has two pieces of evidence in its favor.

Cuba-U.S. Reboot

First is the dismal, half-century failure of the U.S. embargo to dislodge the Castros and restore freedom to the Cuban people. Instead, it has merely locked the island in poverty while estranging the U.S. both from the hemisphere and the international community.

Second is the steadily accelerating pace of change within Cuba since the Obama administration took office. Correlation, of course, is not causation. But over the past six years, Obama's executive actions have expanded freedoms for ordinary Cubans by amplifying the impact of Cuba's limited economic reforms. By the end of next year, annual remittances from Cubans in the U.S. are expected to more than double from their current levels. And since Obama's December announcement on normalizing relations, the pace of change has quickened. Cuba has become Airbnb's fastest-growing market, for instance, putting money into the pockets of Cuban homeowners while exposing them to something equally subversive: American tourists.  

Opponents of normalization might also take a closer look at the kind of cooperation it can enable. Behind the scenes, the U.S. and Cuba have already been working together in areas such as narcotics control, oil-rig safety and migration. These discussions can now expand to address some of the thornier issues in the countries' relationship, including the billions of dollars in restitution claims by Americans who had property seized after the Cuban revolution.

And the benefits of normalization can be expected to spread beyond Cuba. Warmer discussions this week between Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff demonstrated the spillover effect of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. The U.S. also potentially has more leverage with Venezuela, which has traded oil for Cuban support, and a greater chance to influence peace talks that Havana is hosting between Colombia and its rebels. Down the road, it may be easier for the U.S. to monitor, and perhaps block, Cuba's dodgy arms deals with North Korea, and to counter the influence of China, Cuba's biggest creditor.

Cuba won't change overnight, as Obama himself has said. But it can change faster once it has normal relations with the U.S. That's something even America's most obdurate cold warriors would do well to remember.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.