A year before his historic election, then-Senator Barack Obama told a crowd in Miami’s Little Havana, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years. And we need to change it.”
Senator Obama, as Bill LeoGrande recounts, joined this new vision of Cuba policy with substantive proposals to restore Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and people-to-people contacts, and to resume engagement with Cuba’s government on issues that affected our common interests.
As a political candidate, Mr. Obama’s positions were a bet against the conventional wisdom that no one could be elected president without offering full-throated support for the embargo; as a leader for the nation’s foreign policy, he would stage a sharp departure from fifty years of foreign policy orthodoxy.
Converting these risky bets into round trip tickets to Cuba on Air Force One took courage and remarkable insight into what made this time the right time for a policy change of this magnitude.
So, how did the President pull this off?
First, he changed U.S. sanctions; not all at once, but by taking manageable bites, acting without much fanfare, taking mostly safe steps first. In 2009, he began by removing the Bush-era limits on the right of Cuban Americans to visit Cuba and provide financial support for their families.
In the beginning, it seemed counterintuitive to make the community most responsible for keeping the failed Cuba policy in place the most immediate beneficiaries of that policy’s liberalization. But, as visits by Cuban Americans to the island increased 8-fold under the new policy, giving the diaspora “skin in the game” also gave the President political license for more encompassing reforms. Two years later, he reopened non-tourist travel for all Americans, visits which have also grown exponentially, further increasing political support for additional reforms.
Second, he has managed Congress brilliantly. After repeatedly using his executive authority to create legal exceptions to the embargo – allowing increases in travel, trade, and commercial contacts with Cuba in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2016 – not a single reform has been reversed, defunded, or delayed by legislative actions, or by court decisions, as in the case of immigration.
Third, he never caved under controversy. During the slow, steady seven years of President Obama’s purposeful evolution of U.S. policy, there have been troubling and unwelcomed developments – the long prison term of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross prominent among them – of the kind that caused earlier presidents to drop Cuba from their reform agendas. Hardline Members of the U.S. Congress – Republicans and Democrats – even told the administration not to negotiate for Alan Gross’s release, because doing so would require the U.S. to make concessions.
Today, Alan Gross walks free because the President ignored their advice and protected his policy goals while finding a formula that got Mr. Gross, an imprisoned CIA agent, dozens of Cuban political prisoners, and the remaining members of the Cuban Five, back to their homes. Settling their cases was only part of the negotiation that led to the announcement on December 17, 2014 that diplomatic relations would be restored.
Fourth, while the president kept his eyes on the big picture, he also kept learning. In his first term, we were often assured by a member of his National Security Council staff that Cuba was not such a big deal to the other nations of Latin America.
In 2012, our strongest allies in the region, including from conservative governments like Colombia, told the President they would boycott the next Summit of the Americas unless Cuba could attend. In 2015, just four months after Presidents Obama and Castro spoke to their publics about the coming rapprochement, they could meet in person at the Summit in Panama to discuss how the new relationship was going after the U.S. dropped its objections and Cuba got its seat at the table. By the time he delivered his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama was challenging Congress to lift the embargo “if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere.”
Fifth, by tackling this problem as he did, the President created a virtuous cycle in public opinion as measured nationally and in the Cuban American community.
According to the Gallup poll, when he took office in 2009, Cuba was viewed unfavorably by 60% of Americans against just 29% who held favorable views. After seven years of reforms, increased travel, diplomacy, and visible presidential leadership, Cuba is now viewed favorably by 54% of Americans, with unfavorable views falling from 60% down to 40%.
Of perhaps greater significance, support within the diaspora for normalization, according to recent research published by Bendixen & Amandi, leapt from 44% in December 2014 to 56% in just one year. Last year’s Sunshine State Survey found that Floridians of all stripes support diplomatic relations with Cuba at exactly the same levels.
By spreading out the reforms over 7 years, while handling Congress and controversy so steadily, learning and making adjustments along the way, the President won public consent for Cuba policy reforms and a trip to Havana that few of us could have expected.
“Many Americans,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote in 2012, “would be skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.” In this season of cynicism, that skepticism is off the charts.
Perhaps this is what is most remarkable about the trip that President Obama is about to begin: In 2007, he made bold promises to reform Cuba policy as a candidate for our nation’s highest office, and then did the unexpected. He kept his word.
Anyone watching him step off of Air Force One on Sunday should remember that.
For more in this week’s Cuba news, CLICK HERE.