Why is the GOP playing into Castro’s hands?

With Secretary of State John Kerry canceling his trip to Cuba just two weeks before President Obama's scheduled visit to the country, the pressure is on for President Obama to convince President Raul Castro to embark on meaningful economic and political reforms. Unfortunately, he's going with one arm tied behind his back by an intransigent, Republican-led Congress that refuses to consider lifting the economic embargo the United States imposed on Cuba more than 50 years ago. This embargo is the single biggest obstacle to bringing the real change in Cuba that so many Republicans say they want to see.

Raul Castro and Marco Rubio
Chenot | Getty Images, left; Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Raul Castro and Marco Rubio

Over the past year, President Obama has positioned the United States as a good faith partner for Cuba, reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana and promoting trade and tourism, among other watershed actions. His policies reflect a shift in U.S. perceptions of Cuba, with most Americans – including a majority of Cuban Americans – now favoring normalized relations. According to a recent Florida International University poll, 68 percent of Cuban Americans favor re-establishing diplomatic relations, with even greater numbers among the younger generation. American businesses also want better relations with Cuba, as I saw first-hand during my recent trip there, where I encountered dozens of American businessmen, including a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all interested in exploring more opportunities with Cuba.

Regrettably, despite President Obama's efforts, President Castro has shown no signs of relaxing his repressive policies on human rights, transparency or economic freedom. His intractable stance is rumored to be the reason that Secretary Kerry canceled his trip. In fact, President Castro has repeatedly slammed the United States for maintaining the embargo, including during his first speech to the United Nations last September, even though he knows that his refusal to introduce real reforms means that the chances of lifting the embargo are extremely slim.

That's because a small group of Republicans are dead set against normalization. They continue to treat Cuba as a Cold War pariah and are intent on settling 50-year-old compensation claims arising from expropriation of U.S.-owned businesses following the Cuban revolution. Interestingly, these cold warriors seem out of step with the traditional Republican mantra of free trade and open borders that President Ronald Reagan astutely pursued with a Communist-led China in the 1980s. Sen. Marco Rubio suggested that, had he won the presidency, he would have not only maintained the embargo but rolled back President Obama's reforms, too. (While he's no longer in the race, he's still a senator.)

This stance plays right into President Castro's hands.

It is no secret that the Castro government blames most of Cuba's economic problems on the U.S. embargo, using it to garner sympathy from the international community, including getting nearly all member states of the United Nations to call for its repeal. It doesn't seem to have dawned on Sen. Rubio that, without the embargo, President Castro can no longer blame the United States for Cuba's lack of economic progress.

The truth is, current Cuban laws and policies – such as compulsory partnering with state-owned firms, an artificially imposed waiting time to establish a corporate presence, paying labor through state recruitment agencies, and mandatory use of state-owned law firms – are more problematic for Cuban growth than the embargo. By removing the embargo as an excuse, the pressure falls squarely on the Cuban government to demonstrate to its people that it can grow through the existing socialist system and policies.

Cubans are also increasingly aware of what's missing. They know that Cuba provides an attractive climate for U.S. business – its proximity to the U.S., a competitive tax regime, an educated workforce, social safety nets and low labor costs. With health care, education and even food paid for by the government, what Cubans want most are jobs and economic growth. Without the embargo to hide behind, the Cuban government will be compelled to meet the demands of the people if it wants to avoid a demand for governmental change.

It will take a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans to repeal the embargo. Ultimately, that vote will do more to force change in Cuba than anything President Obama can do when he visits the island.

Commentary by Mike Coates, president and chief executive officer of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Americas.

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