Foreign Policy Blogs

Cuba: 2011 Year in Review

This year in Cuban history will be viewed as a significant one, having seen more economic change and reform on the island than some entire decades. But Washington’s response over the course of a year has proven insignificant.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the past year. In January, the executive branch of the U.S. government announced and published new travel and remittance rules with respect to Cuba, which increased possibilities for people-to-people travel. The effect has been gradual (OFAC in the Treasury is under-staffed and really quite slow), but greater numbers of cultural travel groups have received their necessary licenses and are leading trips to the island because of the new rules. February and March saw the trial of the infamous violent Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, and a historic step in the United States to prosecute him for terrorist acts in Cuba (he was later acquitted, to the chagrin of many). Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who remains in jail in Cuba, was sentenced in March to 15 years in prison — a relationship-damaging development that has continued to be a point of great contention between Washington and Havana. In April, the Cuban Communist Party held their Sixth Party Congress and reviewed the terms of a great number of economic reforms, which have proceeded in implementation during the rest of the year. Yet in October we stood nearly solo at the United Nations as the world voted against the U.S. embargo on Cuba. We put Cuba again on our list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” though the evidence to support the designation has withered. And here we are in December with President Obama still apparently convinced that the release of political prisoners in Cuba and the drastic economic changes underway are not enough to qualify as the “change” that would merit a significant bilateral discussion.

Asi es la vida for Cuba-watchers. The most unexpected event of this year was not a “happening” at all: it is the lack of movement forward in Washington on Cuba issues, and the continuing age-old tendency to cater to the conservative Miami Cuban-American base — a demographic that is changing and adapting its views to new developments in Cuba more so than Congress and the current administration, it seems. We expected more this year, despite the myriad of other global challenges faced by the United States. Washington has found time recently to take a fresh look at Myanmar, but still not at our close neighbor Cuba.

With all of the events of the last year, here in the United States the individual whose name has received the most airtime — and who therefore receives our designation of person of the year — is Alan Gross. Mr. Gross has been held in Cuba since December 2009 for distributing communications equipment illegally on the island; his sentence of 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state was upheld by the Cuban Supreme Court in August. U.S. officials have tried unsuccessfully to argue for his unilateral release: many experts have suggested a prisoner swap (modeled off of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange of Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinians — but in this case just one for five), but this has not gained traction in Washington. Mr. Gross remains imprisoned.

The forecast for 2012 is unfortunately only a tick higher than bleak in terms of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. This is unlike me; I know. But 2012 is an election year, and Cuba policy remains contentious politically. There is frankly very little reason for an administration seeking re-election to take the kind of political risk that drastic (necessary) Cuba policy changes entail. But the island’s future looks positive, at least for the moment. The population is testing out new economic reforms, the reforms are pressing ahead to the long-run benefit of a troubled economy, and foreign businesses and investors remain interested in Cuba despite recent crackdowns on corruption that have affected foreigners as well as Cubans.

We’ll be here as this all develops.



Melissa Lockhart Fortner
Melissa Lockhart Fortner

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, having served previously as Senior Programs Officer for the Council. From 2007-2009, she held a research position at the University of Southern California (USC) School of International Relations, where she closely followed economic and political developments in Mexico and in Cuba, and analyzed broader Latin American trends. Her research considered the rise and relative successes of Latin American multinationals (multilatinas); economic, social and political changes in Central America since the civil wars in the region; and Wal-Mart’s role in Latin America, among other topics. Melissa is a graduate of Pomona College, and currently resides in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Jeff Fortner.

Follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.