Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Cuba Part of Obama’s “Long Game”?

Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

For those who have not yet read Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek piece on Obama, published this past week, take note: it should be required reading for all U.S. voters as the country continues its journey toward the 2012 presidential election. Self-identified as a conservative-minded independent, Sullivan takes on the liberal, conservative, and moderate critiques of Obama’s term in office with dexterity — slashing some of the most pervasive arguments from both parties and all sides as fallacious, overblown, and often even factually or internally inconsistent — and maintains that the President’s character, record, and promise remain “grossly underappreciated.” But his main point is this: Obama has been pragmatic from the start, never focused on making short-term gains for which he can immediately and loudly take credit, but instead taking a long view strategy that entails slow, deliberate, unprovocative persistence and makes the changes he achieves more durable.

The point of Sullivan’s piece is not to deify Barack Obama. It is to ground an assessment of the President’s work in reality, which he does quite well. And it can remind Cuba watchers (myself included) of the character and nature of the man we’re considering when we discuss Cuba policy and Executive capabilities and actions.

First, it can help us to remember and recognize the sheer number of challenges the President faced when he took office. The economy was swirling lower into recession, with employment tumbling and our financial system threatening to pull the country into a true depression without swift and decisive action by the Executive and Congress. The U.S. global image was tarnished by our record on torture and by our bloated military presence and arrogant rhetoric. Yet still, not long into his time in office and even as he focused largely on addressing these and other pressing issues, President Obama fulfilled the only concrete campaign promise he made with respect to Cuba policy: he granted Americans unrestricted rights to send money to and visit family in Cuba. Even this small step was met with criticism, and attempts have been made in Congress to roll this policy back. But Obama has held his ground — quietly but firmly — threatening executive veto in order to make sure that his policy remains.

Second, we can recall the number of actors involved in affecting policy, which include, of course, not only the President and his administration but also the legislative branch and nongovernmental actors like lobbying groups, Cuban-American constituencies, think tanks, and others. The Executive seldom acts alone to change policy except, as we have seen, in situations deemed (correctly or not) particularly urgent and crucial to national security. Whatever the merits of changing U.S. policy toward Cuba, it simply does not fall into this category. And he does not yet have Congressional consensus on Cuba.

Third, we are reminded that Obama was not elected as a liberal crusader, but as a pragmatic, unifying reformist. Cuba policy may be ripe for change, but should the President unilaterally decree a set of changes called for by Cuba watchers, think tanks and other nongovernmental actors, he would have to willfully ignore a Congress that has been determined to avoid such changes. This is not his style. Ultimately, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” came from the President working with top military and defense leaders, and they (including Admiral Mike Mullen) came forward and made the case for doing away with the policy. Had Obama acted unilaterally, the repeal would no doubt have taken more heat than it did, would have met with more resistance, and might not have been durable in the long run. We can expect to see the same with further change to U.S. policy toward Cuba, or any changes put in place will be at risk of immediate opposition, counter-attack, and retaliation or repeal. Remember: pragmatic, unifying reformist, not crusader.

And finally, we are reminded that for Washington, Cuba has always been a long game. The basic tenets of our current policy toward the island have been around for half a century without yielding any measurable “success”. Any movement in broad perception, understanding and opinions has been glacial, but we are, however slowly, moving as a population toward a different consensus than that under which current policy was designed. And as more Americans learn about and visit Cuba under the current people-to-people travel regulations, the consensus can be expected to grow.

All of this does not have to make us more patient about seeing additional changes in long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba. But it could help us see the long view. And perhaps the President is on track.

  • Moses

    I agree with your analysis of the Obama strategy in Cuba. Unfortunately, this “long game” strategy plays perfectly into the hands of the Castro regime and exacerbates the suffering of the Cuban people. I was in Cuba just prior to and again just after the Obama election in November 2008. There were such high hopes for this President among Cubans accustomed to change measured in glacial terms. Had Obama done more to normalize relations with Cubaover the last three years, more pressure would have been put upon the Castros to respond in kind. Keep in mind that the status quo is exactly what they really want. The ineffective embargo has been the perfect whipping boy for the Castros to blame for all that ails Cuban structurally inept society. In the case of Cuba, the Obama “long game” is the wrong game.

  • Rich Haney

    This is a well written and insightful appraisal of America’s Cuban problem. But the best remains the editorial by Penelope Purdy, the Latin American expert for the Denver Post. Her sane conclusion: “The U. S. Cuban policy for all these decades has been conducted with the IQ of a salamander.” Purdy used a whole page to name the Caribbean and Latin American dictators, such as Batista in Cuba, installed and/or supported by the United States to benefit rich Americans, such as the shareholders of the United Fruit Company and other such infamous entities that raped and robbed those countries blind, along with the dictators. Obama is not a “salamander” when it comes to IQ or decency but the political situation in the U. S. since 1959 ties his hands when it comes to Cuba. That is because the Batista/Mafia dictatorship in Cuba merely reconstituted itself it South Florida in January of 1959 when it was overthrown in Cuba. Thus, the GOP candidates in the current presidential race must not only appease but lick the shoes of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the other Cuban-born exiles who control Florida’s 29 electoral votes and incredible millions of campaign dollars. The sad fact is that the only other entity in the two-party system, the Democrats, must do exactly the same thing. The U. S. democracy changed forever on January 1, 1959, although Cuba is and always has been a mere island. The Cuban Revolution colored the U. S. democracy not just because the U. S. – backed Batista was overthrown but because it represents the only overthrown U. S. – backed dictatorship that reconstituted itself on U. S. soil. Correcting that cancer will never even begin to take place until we have politicians with the guts and intelligence to address that fact. But, as Purdy so cogently stated, our politicians, including Obama, are “salamanders” when it comes to Cuba. Thus, still guiding U. S. foreign policy is the infamously evil Helms-Burton Bill that, as everyone knows, was written and rammed through by revengeful Cuban exiles such as Jorge Mas Canosa, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the Diaz-Balarts (directly from the Batista ministry). Every nation in the world has been hurt by Helms-Burton, accounting for the unanimity of the pro-Cuban and anti-embargo vote in the UN EACH AND EVERY OCTOBER. Moral of the story (if we survive the 1959 mess) is this: current and future U. S. – backed dictatorships SHOUD NEVER be allowed to reconstitute themselves on U. S. soil if they get overthrown.

  • Reg

    1. A good article that suffered some loss of credibility in using Andrew Sullivan (in the Newsweek article) to define the President’s political acumen, leadership capabilities and agenda. “Conservative-minded independent” is farthest from my mind about Sullivan after reading his article and reviewing prior writings, pronouncements and cogitations.
    2. Unrestricted rights to send money to and visit family in Cuba was already part of the political dialogue long before the 2008 elections. It is politically naive, in my belief, to think that there was significant resistance among the Florida Cubans and from most Republicans for that matter. But it is correct to give the President credit for making it official.
    3. Was there really a short view and a long view about the Cuba policy on the part of this President? The Democratic party have long been associated with the relaxation of trade policy and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. He had 2 years to accomplish a lot with Cuba and other (Democratic party) issues. The President have shown no hesitation about using Executive Orders even after he lost his very compliant Democratic Congress after 2010. Perhaps Cuba is not in the list (agenda).

  • Leonardo Sanchez

    Very good work! We need more analysis like this when it comes to Cuba.

  • Seems as if Cuba is once again an afterthought for yet another American administration.


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.