Cautious Optimism: Reassessing US Cuba Policy

By Nuccio, Richard A. | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Cautious Optimism: Reassessing US Cuba Policy


Nuccio, Richard A., Harvard International Review


RICHARD A. NUCCIO is a Visiting Scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He served as President Clinton's special advisor for Cuba from 1995 to 1996.

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of a US-Cuba dynamic that has often produced confrontation and, at times, violence. Though the relationship between the United States and Cuba remains antagonistic, recent developments suggest that the end to those tensions may be approaching. The visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in January 1998 transformed the political and moral dynamics of the Cuban policy of the United States and may have long-term effects on Cuba's evolution following President Fidel Castro's rule. The Pope's visit and the continuing conflict with our European allies over Cuba policy have also encouraged some of the first direct challenges to the US economic embargo, which has remained at the center of US Cuba policy spanning 40 years and the administrations of eight US presidents.

A Constructive Debate

Recent developments affecting Cuba, the United States, and the international environment create the opportunity for a long overdue debate on Cuba policy. That debate will be more constructive, I believe, if it is guided by the following assertions about US Cuba policy that stem from my previous experience in designing and implementing US policy toward this island nation. First, it is important to the national interests of the United States that relatively peaceful and democratic change come to Cuba. One of the most strongly held opinions about US Cuba policy is that it is based on outmoded conceptions of Cuba as a Cold War threat. Once Cuba's ties to Moscow were severed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the argument goes, Cuba would no longer represent a strategic asset to Soviet power and, hence, should have expected a changed relationship with the United States.

Cuba's retreat from its prior global engagement in wars of national liberation, guerrilla training, and military and intelligence support for revolutionary governments is usually cited as evidence that Cuba is no longer a threat to US interests and merits a changed relationship with the United States. Sometimes, conditions laid down by US policymakers 20 years ago for the normalization of relations are now cited as having been met by Cuba, justifying an automatic US response.

The view that Cuba no longer poses any threat to important US interests makes perfect sense if one assumes that the end of the Cold War changed neither these interests nor the definition of US national security. However, the largely welcome developments of the last decaded did dramatically alter both US interests and its definition of national security. This is true for the Latin American and the Caribbean region as a whole, not just for Cuba. For example, the Presidential Review Directive process (PRD-21) for the Latin American and Caribbean region, conducted in the first year of the Clinton administration, identified five national interests of the United States at stake in our relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. These were the promotion of democratic governance and the protection of human rights, the expansion of free markets and free trade, the combat of drug trafficking, the control of illegal immigration, and the protection of the natural environment.

If one were to derive the tenets of US Cuba policy from the definition of US interests contained in the PRD-21, then encouraging a peaceful, democratic transition in Cuba should be among the top priorities for US officials responsible for Latin American and Caribbean policy.

Another consideration that should guide US policy toward the island is the fact that Cuba is the only state in the hemisphere that does not accept the ideal of electoral democracy and market forces as the defining characteristics of legitimate governments. This is in spite of the Organization of American States (OAS) dedicating itself to the Santiago Declaration ideal of promoting and defending democracy. …

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