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Low-Hanging Fruit

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
December 4, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

In 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams saw Cuba as ripe for the territorial expansion of a United States that needed both to quell factional conflict and mark itself as a world power. Almost 200 years later, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama stubbornly resist that 'low hanging fruit,' not of annexation, but of a foreign policy victory with Cuba.

The contrast with Iran is instructive. First with Hilary Clinton and now with John Kerry, the Obama White House has shown that an international consensus around a mix of diplomacy and collective sanctions can set the stage for potentially meaningful results with Iran. To do so, they have been willing to antagonize Israel and Saudi Arabia, provoke political backlash in the U.S. Congress, including from their own party, and enrage other hardliners for whom no process with Iran, short of the complete relinquishing of its nuclear program and regime change, is enough.

When it comes to Cuba, Washington also benefits from a complete international consensus, albeit on the failure and folly of sanctions, and from favorable public opinion on the merits of a diplomatic process. But the comparison stops there. In short, the White House knows full well that Cuba doesn't have a nuclear program, it doesn't support terrorists (in fact it facilitates their incorporation into the democratic process in Colombia's case), it doesn't have troops in Africa or guerrillas in Latin America, and it doesn't permit organized crime and drug trafficking to transit through its waters or across its territory. After 55 years of antagonism, the White House finally seems to understand that the one thing Washington wants from Cuba—some call it control, others call it liberal democracy—is not something that can be coerced from Havana with sanctions.

The only thing Cuba can give today that the United States (sort of) wants is one man, and his last name is not Castro. His name is Alan Gross. This week Gross marks four years in a Cuban military hospital that serves as his prison. Gross was arrested while working for a U.S.-government subcontractor installing advanced satellite equipment as part of Washington's regime change programs. Because those programs are the jealously-guarded darlings of Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat who now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, (and who also opposes the Iran deal), the White House has done little to date but futilely demand Gross' unconditional release. Yet Obama paid Egypt $5 million for the release of Americans detained while working for the International Republican Institute. He swapped spies with Moscow. He negotiated the release of hikers from Iran and a CIA contractor from Pakistan.

Some 66 senators now back negotiations with Havana over Gross. Obama won Florida with 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote. What, exactly, is the President waiting for?

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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