The senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says U.S. policy toward Cuba has not worked to bring democracy to the island, and he is recommending an overhaul.
In a report due to be distributed this week, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) says recent leadership changes in both countries have created an opportunity to rethink a complicated relationship, which he says is marked by misunderstanding and suspicion.
One of the key policy overhauls Lugar's report calls for is lifting tight restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba that were imposed by the Bush administration in 2003.
Embargo As Excuse
But Steve Clemons, with the New America Foundation, says Lugar's report is a sharp indictment of nearly five decades of failure in trying to shift Havana's behavior through sanctions and embargoes.
"I think the ... thing about the Lugar report is he said 47 years of failure, that embargos can work in some cases as they did in apartheid in South Africa, but there's no one who can look at the U.S.-Cuba relationship and say this has succeeded in any way, shape or form," Clemons says.
Lugar is not recommending lifting the embargo, but he does say the embargo gives Cuba a convenient scapegoat for its economic problems. He notes that the replacement of President Fidel Castro with his brother, Raul, a year ago sparked a new discussion about U.S. policy toward the island.
Clemons says it is a prime moment for the U.S. to redefine its relationship with Cuba.
"You ... see in Cuba, I think, a more pragmatic and realist leadership there that seems to be moving forward," Clemons says.
He says there is also a new leadership in the United States.
"The question is, can we take advantage of pivot points in history, or do we stand back and let them go by and do nothing?" Clemons asks.
Changes In Cuba
Carl Meacham, Lugar's senior staffer, researched and wrote the report. He says there have been some positive developments recently in Cuba. In particular, he notes what he calls "modest reforms" such as allowing citizens to be able to own cell phones and computers and stay at hotels previously reserved for foreigners — though the vast majority of the population can't afford to take advantage of these reforms.
"These changes shouldn't be mistaken as being structural reforms, that they really have not changed the way the government works in Cuba," Meacham says. "Nevertheless, they're working on the edges a little bit because people are dissatisfied, mainly with economic issues."
Opposition To Plan
Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) says owning cell phones and the like are small and insignificant steps that shouldn't blur the larger picture about the Cuban government.
"I mean, the whole atmosphere that Raul Castro was going to be different and bring about change has been completely debunked by facts, by time," Martinez says.
He says the sad thing about Lugar's report is it doesn't match with the facts and the reality on the ground.
"This is a cruel, totalitarian repressive regime that has their people suffering under the most inhumane conditions," he says.
Martinez says the U.S. should keep its Cuba policies in place.
"It's foolhardy for us to make changes here when they make no changes there," he says. "To have a change and a more cooperative approach, both sides have to be willing to cooperate, and have to be willing to have some change."
But Meacham says Havana has indicated it wants bilateral dialogue on issues such as narco-trafficking and migration.
"Right now what we're suggesting is a sequenced kind of engagement in where we start having conversation on areas of consensus," he says.
Meacham says that will help build confidence in order to tackle the harder issues.
The Lugar report may gain some traction with the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged a review of U.S. policy toward Cuba.