With President Barack Obama’s new U.S. policy toward Cuba the focus of intense media coverage, the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy addressed the issue head-on Tuesday during its tenth annual Latin America Conference, with experts on both sides of the aisle voicing their opinions on the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
“Normalizing relations with Cuba can be done with a stroke of a pen, but normalizing relations with the Cuban people will take more work,” said Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., referring to the historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties announced by Obama on December 17, 2014.
Noriega was one of four panelists who discussed the policy shift during the half-day conference, which addressed other topics such as Latin America’s economic prospects and the political outlook for the region.
“We were told that reaching out to Cuba would cause Castro to unclench his fist, but that hasn’t happened,” said Noriega, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, citing numbers he obtained that show 15,000 political arrests in Cuba since the president’s announcement last December.
But Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group, said policies like the decades-long embargo on trade with the island have only given the Castro regime excuses for its failures and remain a “significant impediment” to change on the island.
“Isolation is absolutely the wrong prescription,” Saladrigas said.
Obama’s new policy toward Cuba, he explained, calls out the Castro regime, challenging it on the effectiveness of a “playbook” it has used for the past 56 years that hasn’t worked. It also provides a forum to better address human rights abuses in Cuba and empowers the Cuban elite who favor and want change.
José Azel, senior research associate at UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, and Daniel Restrepo, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., and a former senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, also participated on the panel.
Held in the third-floor ballroom of the Conrad Miami, the CHP’s annual Latin America Conference came ten years after the think tank’s birth.
“It has been successful beyond my wildest dreams, and in great part that’s because we are based in Miami,” said CHP director Susan Kaufman Purcell. “There is a great interest in a broad range of topics—in trade and financial and economic policy, as well as social issues in Latin America. What has also made a difference is that there was a hunger here for this kind of think tank. We didn’t have the kinds of think tanks that are in New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities, and we did not have an organization that was focused on political, economic, and U.S. policy for the region.”
In delivering closing remarks at the conference, outgoing UM President Donna E. Shalala, who supported the CHP’s creation in 2005, compared the center to her favorite children’s book, The Little Engine that Could.
“I like to think that the Center for Hemispheric Policy is ‘The Little Think-Tank that Could,’ because under Susan’s leadership and her small but mighty team, including associate director Susi Davis, this organization has built a legacy of engaging and profoundly relevant programming and publications,” Shalala said. “These discourses reveal the inner workings of our hemisphere in a way that goes beyond the academic.”