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Refusing to Toe the Company Line: Lessons from a Year Researching US-Cuba Policy

April 11th, 2011 · 1 Comment

By Matt Stieglitz

For the past year, I have been entrenched in thesis research on US-Cuba Policy, analyzing the embargo’s evolution from the perspective of the US presidency. (Before the haters slam that because of the US presidency angle, please note I was bound by fellowship guidelines to study the policy as it relates to the American presidency). As personally relevant as my work has been, it has also revealed incredibly unique insight into how American presidents could have handled the embargo, why certain events happened the way they did, and ultimately why a hard-line stance towards Cuba will not change any time soon. My hope was to author policy recommendations on how to end the embargo, which actually was easy enough. Instead, the difficulty came in writing something that rises above the Cuba fatigue on the Hill where we see no incentive to change, and a quagmire of hopelessness and despair for pro-normalization advocates like myself.

My path to finding the groundbreaking argument on normalization began with my research highlighting an incredible lack of attention paid to the Cuban perspective of the embargo. Please note, when I say Cuban perspective I mean academics and officials actually on the island, not Cuban-American politicians or the Calle Ocho scuttlebutt. Often in academia a balanced perspective on issues is difficult to find because of the inherent bias of any research we perform. When it comes to US-Cuba relations, this bias represents the limited and almost non-existent exchange of ideas that takes into account what Cubans on the island think. Such irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone, as an “exchange of ideas” is what the US government always harps on when slamming Cuba for their limited Internet access and state-run media. Although Harvard University does have a professorial exchange program with Cuba, finding actual Cuban research on the embargo is a road to nowhere. Instead, you’ll be left with newspaper and magazine articles from journalists who travel there, or field work from American PhD candidates.

The next idea was for me to find a way to mitigate the severe lack of forward thinking from my Cuban-American brothers and sisters on how we move forward. Historically, any discussion of constructive engagement of the Castro brothers is met with scorn, yet after over fifty years we see the same definition of insanity being read over and over again. I argue that if we want change to happen, we have got to stop demanding all the compromise in the world from everyone else and start respecting Cuba’s sovereignty. We rightfully slam Cuba for its lack of free elections, state controlled media, and deplorable human rights abuses. But any time Cuba has slammed the US for its race relations, inequitable education system, and flawed healthcare policy, we ignore them. This of course harks back to the Miami company line of zero tolerance when it comes to Castro, the extent of which most people probably aren’t aware of (the blacklisting of jobs and attacks on pro-normalization advocates are blogs for another day).

Indeed, it wasn’t easy as a progressive Cuban-American to dive into a subject I haven’t been able to escape since kindergarten and challenge the company line. But as always, a simple subscription to logic allowed me break the US-Cuba debate to its core, revealing one victim (Cubans on the island), a perennial policy failure (the embargo), and a competition between Washington and Havana to show who has the bigger ego. Bottom line, this isn’t working, and surprisingly the anti-Castro lobby isn’t the big hurdle in the argument. The hurdle is Congress, which holds the power to end the embargo through a law that states we either wait for a democratically elected government sans the Castro brothers. The alternative is for Congress to repeal its own law, not exactly a promising notion as long as the Cuban Three are in office.

Lastly, the final food for thought on this issue comes from the one interview I conducted, which was an unplanned, last minute dinner meeting with a former head of the US Interests Section in Havana (what can I say, the perks of guest speakers coming to Cornell). To sum up what was an outrageously informative and hilarious dinner conversation, Cuba hasn’t been a priority since the Reagan administration, when the US shot down Cuba’s attempts at dialogue, setting the Cuba debate back to the Kennedy era and pushing my interviewee to resign. During the Reagan years the anti-Castro lobby mobilized and became one of the most historically influential lobbies in Washington, and Miami’s political scene became Pre-Castro Cuba II. Since then, the most progressive policy changes we’ve seen towards Cuba have come from President Obama, extending a Cold War relic long beyond what should have been its expiration date. Unsurprisingly, the lack of incentive to change prevails.

The moral of the story is one I hope people understand: foreign policy change towards Cuba is not an American priority. Simply, there is no groundbreaking realization on how to create change. People know exactly what to do but refuse to step on the gas. So the Miami elite can kvetch all they want about how the Castro brothers refuse to die and about expanded US travel to the island, the reality is the Obama administration won’t take away their precious embargo. We need look no further than the baby steps the Obama administration has taken towards dialogue with Cuba, which unequivocally are on pace for “consideration of relations” after the 2012 election at best. And even then, if the embargo has taught us anything, it’s that hopeful promise with Cuba probably shouldn’t exist.

Matthew Stieglitz received his BA in Communication from the University of Delaware. He is currently a 2011 Master of Public Administration candidate at Cornell University concentrating in Government, Politics, & Policy Studies. After receiving his MPA, Matthew will attend law school in order to merge his public affairs background with a legal education to most effectively advocate for Latinos.

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Tags: Barack Obama · Cuba · Fidel Castro · Foreign Policy · Government Accountability · health care · Latin American Foreign Policy

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Chicano future tense // Apr 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Matt S ..
    “I argue that if we want change to happen, we have got to stop demanding all the compromise in the world from everyone else and start respecting Cuba’s sovereignty. “

    I totally agree with Matt’s argument here.He shows good sense, fair and balanced reasoning.
    I think it would be really great if Matt could could go to Cuba request an interview with either Fidel or Raul Castro,ask them a lot of questions,elicit ideas,listen to their points of view.
    I think Matt could do this if he tries.

    Matt seems open minded,I think the Cuban officials would agree to such an interview.
    Go for it Matt and good luck..

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