For the first time since the 1960s, the United States has leverage over Cuba. It is perhaps not a lot at this point but more than before. This means finally there is a greater chance that Cuba will respond positively to U.S. policy, both in terms of speeding market reforms and improving its human rights record.
Critics of normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba have commonly used the logic that punishing Cuba harshly would bring the country to its knees and compel it to give in to U.S. demands. The United States should make no major concessions, the argument went, until the Cuban government had changed its ways. That strategy failed for five decades, but stubbornly remained the backbone of U.S. policy towards Cuba.
But the strategy ignored leverage, which in foreign policy “involves using resources and/or relationships in a creative way to bring about certain effects in the world.” Until December 2014, when the Obama administration announced its historic changes to Cuba policy, the United States used punitive measures almost exclusively in pursuit of its policy goals. There was no flexibility and certainly there was no creativity.
As a result, not long after the 1959 revolution the United States lost whatever leverage it had over Cuba. The U.S. government imposed an embargo that it periodically tightened; sponsored an invasion; made repeated efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro; encouraged attacks on the island by exiles; and ejected Cuba from the Organization of American States. Since these efforts did not succeed in achieving any policy goals, there was literally nothing left to do. All formal means of communication had been severed and all threats had already been carried out.
Advocates of those policies argued incorrectly that they would place so much pressure on Cuba that it would buckle. When the Soviet Union fell they passed even tougher sanctions, most notably the Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton Act. Those similarly failed. By the time President Obama took office, anti-Castro hardliners had convinced themselves that Venezuela’s economic slide would serve as an opportune time to demand change from Havana.
The problem is that Fidel Castro, and then his brother Raúl after him, refused to respond to a policy based solely on punishment. They reacted indignantly in public. Privately they put out feelers to determine whether there were any potential carrots among the sticks, but consistently found the preconditions too steep.
When President Obama’s critics bemoan the unilateral nature of U.S. policy change, they miss an essential point. In the absence of leverage, the Cuban government never would have agreed to preconditions, and therefore no progress of any kind would be made.
To gain any measure of success, the U.S. needed to ease back on punishment-only and add some carrots to the sticks. The threat of removing those carrots represents leverage. Raúl Castro wants to keep them, as they include travel, investment, and at least a small increase in trade.
In private, the Obama administration has been blunt with Cuba, insisting that the embargo can’t end without economic opening and improvement on human rights by the Cuban government. Now that Raúl Castro sees that the U.S. government is actually willing to reform its policies, odds are higher he will reciprocate. There is no guarantee, but of course in diplomacy there never is. We do know, however, that without leverage nothing else has worked.
Now, President Obama can use congressional Republicans as a foil. His statements clearly make the point that he wishes to end the embargo, but Congress needs something more to even begin contemplating it. The Cuban leaders, who understand the U.S. political system better than most Americans, recognize the difference between executive and legislative power in the United States, and have acknowledged the limits of what Obama can do by himself.
As a result, the Castros understand that when a U.S. president makes concessions, there are limits beyond which he can’t go without Congress. There is also a threat that without reciprocity on the part of Cuba, there will be more domestic pressure in the United States to roll back the new moves toward liberalization. That might not be likely, but it is certainly possible. Raúl Castro may well try to make President Obama’s job easier by accepting the need for action.
Blunt force alone hasn’t worked to influence the Cuban government. President Obama’s unilateral policy shift away from that strategy finally generated at least a small amount of leverage. He has demonstrated more creativity than we’ve seen in many years, and has the potential to encourage Cuba to do more. That alone is change.