Obama's Cuban Reform Doesn't Go Nearly Far Enough

Yenis Delgado is a green-eyed, 45-year-old Cuban beauty. She left the island a decade ago with her husband and young son. Her dad stayed behind, though, and it's hard to keep in touch. Calls cost $1 per minute. Sending gifts sets her back $50 per pound.

"Who can afford that?" she says. "It was about time they did something to change the system. But they need to do much more."

President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he plans to "normalize relations between... the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas," drew treacly praise from liberals and heavy fire from Cuban-American politicians. Listening to either the Birkenstock brigade or the partido de té last week, you would have thought there was a new storming of the Moncada Barracks.

But they all got it wrong.

See Also: Special Report: America's Cuba Ties Transformed

Here's Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado: "It's very sad that the United States has given everything in exchange for nothing." Added U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio: "[This is] a dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people's expense." What about U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart? "President Obama is the appeaser-in-chief who is willing to provide unprecedented concessions to a brutal dictatorship."

Wrong from the right.

And these are the words of former President Jimmy Carter: "President Obama has shown such wisdom and also, I think, political courage." And U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee from Oakland, who visited the island last week: "The President has done exactly the right thing. This will benefit both the Cuban people and the American people."


Truth is, America will change the name of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to "embassy." And yeah, a few people will find it easier to visit the island. There might even be more phone lines established. But -- as Yenis Delgado and many other Miamians immediately figured out -- the much-ballyhooed announcement means painfully little.

Even after Obama's decision takes force, American tourism on the island will basically still be outlawed. Close relatives of citizens, academics, religious groups, journalists, and a few others can head for Varadero Beach, but you almost certainly can't; Congress would have to change that. Though Obama noted in his speech that "Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island," that won't mean much if you can't take a plane or boat across the Florida Straits.

Nor will you be able to buy Cuban cigars or rum in stores. A few travelers to la isla will be allowed to bring home $100 per visit of tobacco and liquor combined. Combined! That's nothing. The Cuban embargo is still in force and would have to be nixed by the Republican-led and anti-Obama Congress. Trade of almost any kind is illegal even though the president promised that American exporters will get better access to Havana's markets.

And even though Obama "authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba," the embargo still generally forbids technology sales. This is particularly significant. Cuba has among the lowest internet connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere at 5 percent. Unlike China, where connectivity has burgeoned by 20 times since 2000, Cuba has kept its people offline, and this has allowed the Castro brothers to isolate their people and retain control despite grueling poverty.

That poverty won't change, either. Families like Delgado's will be able to send a bit more money home. The maximum will swell from $2,000 to $8,000 per year, and some bureaucratic rules will change. But that money alone isn't likely to have any effect on the Cuban economy. Regular Cubans probably won't be able to buy meat, as one dissident noted after the announcement, according to National Public Radio. Cuba's food rationing -- which includes sugar, rice, and a few eggs every month -- isn't likely to end anytime soon.

The average Cuban earns about $20 per month. That just doesn't buy much.

No change was proposed to the weird, "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that allows Cubans, and no other nationality, to stay here and apply for citizenship if they make it to U.S. soil.

The news media -- including New Times -- made much of the president's announcement, as well as Cuban leader Raúl Castro's decision to free 53 political prisoners, American Alan Gross, and an unnamed spy (whom the Associated Press identified last week as an Army officer's son named Rolando Sarraff Trujillo).

We couldn't avoid the issue. The backstory was the stuff of political thrillers. Argentine-born Pope Francis begged the United States and Cuba to come together. Months of back-channel discussions were held both in the Vatican and in Canada, which has built a strong relationship with the island despite physical and cultural distance. The decision was even announced on Francis' 78th birthday.

The Cubans had to do something. Liberalization over the past few years hasn't improved the economy. And until recently, Venezuela propped up the Cuban economy with huge oil-fueled subsidies. But with the price of petroleum dropping and the Venezuelan economy in a shambles, those dollars have already melted away and will likely be gone soon.

But the fact is that neither Raúl Castro nor Barack Obama really got much from the deal. Politically, Obama created an issue for Republicans to fundraise around. Last week, the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, a leading opponent of normalization, claimed that wealthy Cuban-Americans had already begun offering campaign money for a potential presidential campaign by Cuban-American Marco Rubio or by conservative former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The group raised $200,000 last month at a gala headlined by Bush.

Things for Castro don't appear much better. He is 83 years old and has announced he will step down in 2018. Nothing in this deal or any other deal on the horizon promises to substantially improve the lot of himself or his people.

The real losers in this whole ordeal, though, are the Cuban people, who have been subjected to U.S. trade and diplomatic restrictions for decades. Obama's move at least started us down the road to improving their lot. But Republicans such as Rubio and Bush, who called the president's move "a policy misstep," are the real bad guys here. They and their predecessors have achieved nothing with decades of embargo, skulduggery, and political exclusion. Almost from the minute Obama's intentions became known last week, Rubio and company made clear they would do anything possible to block change. Shame on them.

The Miami Cubans I know are split on the whole thing. While most of the Republican political establishment came out roaring against it, many like Yenis Delgado were happy to see something done but skeptical that any real change is at hand.

"There is a lot of talk," says Delgado, who has twice visited family on the island, "but that really doesn't mean anything to me."

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse