Really, it’s inertia. Why do we maintain sanctions on Cuba? Because we maintain sanctions on Cuba.
That might sound trite on first reading, but we’re not maintaining sanctions because the American public demands it. The public favors normalization. A majority of all Americans support normalization, an even bigger majority of Floridians, and a majority of each party support normalizing. The Floridians were more heavily polled because one assumption about Cuba policy is you don’t back off sanctions because the Florida Cubans are one-issue voters who can swing a big swing state. It used to be that conservative Cubans seemed to run our Cuba policy, but the results in Florida suggest that “conservative Cubans” isn’t a redundancy anymore. Younger Cubans might be voting like other Hispanics, and there are increasing numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida, in case anyone wondered why Florida Republicans now aim their voter suppression at Hispanics as well as blacks. So that’s not what’s sustaining sanctions on Cuba.
Is it the recalcitrant support of the leftover cold warriors? You might assume so, given that surely they would scream if Obama moved to normalize relations with Cuba, but anyone thinking Obama is upholding sanctions just because he’s in the grip of the people stuck in 1970 needs to notice the cold warriors’ complaint that Obama never listens to them and does everything wrong. Obama’s base hasn’t agreed with everything Obama has done, but the cold warriors are partly right, Obama doesn’t follow their advice. That he does everything wrong, well, that’s coming from people who backed Bush Jr., so they lost the credibility to speak on foreign policy ever again.
With no constituency for sanctions that anyone needs to listen to, what maintains the sanctions? Inertia. We’re maintaining sanctions because they’re there and we’re busy with other things. Really, if you list the most important issues, where does Cuba rank? I’m guessing all readers can get to double digits on that list easily without Cuba being there. Just narrow the list to foreign policy, and Cuba probably still doesn’t reach the top ten. Ukraine is currently a crisis, I’ve seen press reports suggesting Syria is still holding much of the administration’s time, we still have a lot of troops in Afghanistan, and do I need to go on? Congress might be ignoring Cuba because the House Republicans are working on nothing but their eighth investigation of Benghazi, 15th investigation of Solyndra, and 863rd repeal of Obamacare, but the administration is just plain busy. Obama inherited crises and it’s been one thing after another.
So why give Cuba attention? Partly because public opinion has shifted, though that doesn’t make it smart, just politically acceptable. Republicans will go nuts, but that’s true no matter what Obama does. There are really two reasons, one practical, and one crisis-management.
The practical is that the sanctions haven’t worked. They may even have blown back by allowing the Castros to easily convince the Cuban public the US is out to get them, and given the pre-revolution relations between our countries, that’s an easy sell. Meanwhile, we have normal relations with lots of dictatorships. We recognize how the dictators run things, with repression of dissidents and sham elections, but we exchange ambassadors, have normal trade relations, and allow travel. Since what we’re doing with Cuba isn’t working, do something else. And yes, trade. That’s part of what motivates support for normalization. I doubt Cuba is big enough to have noticeable effect on the US economy, but if that’s what it takes to overturn a pointless policy, OK.
By crisis-management, I actually mean avoiding crises rather than resolving them. Cuba isn’t a crisis, and it should be a relatively simple problem. We’ve normalized relations with other dictatorships we thoroughly disliked. Some cold warriors didn’t want to normalize relations with Vietnam either, but now it’s just another country, not one where we have ongoing hostility and the possibility of shooting. Cuba should be easier to resolve since we haven’t actually fought a long war there. Normalize before we have a problem with the Cuban government deploying troops where we much prefer they not, or before they approach another major power about having a base nice and close to the US. Both of those, bear in mind, have happened before.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting the president can just wave his hand and it’s done. Part of our sanctions on Cuba is legislative, which means congressional action, which younger folks understandably suspect to be a myth. But what Obama can do to normalize relations, he should.
So now that the public is looking at the situation more realistically, and we’re momentarily between Cuba-crises, normalize to get this problem off our plates. Even if it makes Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio rant. Actually, that would be a nice bonus.