A new approach to Cuba

Fifty years ago, Ernesto “Che” Guevara led a column of war-steeled rebels into Havana as Fidel Castro took the city of Santiago at the other end of the island and declared a Cuban revolution. This one, Castro said, would not be like Cuba’s 1898 independence from Spain, “when the Americans came and took over.”

Since that New Year’s night in 1959, 10 U.S. presidents have tried to overthrow, undermine or cajole Castro, to no avail. Covert operations, including President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion, failed to dislodge the communist government. A Cold War standoff with Russia over missile bases on the island brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war, but it didn’t budge Castro. Diplomatic isolation didn’t work. And a trade embargo to protest the expropriation of U.S. property, prevent the export of revolution and press for democracy and human rights has been utterly ineffectual. Rather, it has provided cover for the Cuban government’s own deficiencies and served as a pretext for repression.

Fifty years of failure is too long. The incoming Obama administration should move quickly to embark on a rapprochement with Cuba and bring an end to punitive policies, especially the economic embargo. The United Nations condemns it, the European Union is trading with Cuba, and Latin America is urging the United States to allow Cuba back into the fold. This policy change will take time and political will, but it is in our national interest and, ultimately, in Cuba’s.

The United States’ Cuba policy has long been determined by exiles who fled the revolution and settled into a powerful political bloc in Florida. But in the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won Florida without the support of Cuban American hard-liners, freeing himself from restraints that encumbered his Democratic and Republican predecessors. Obama has promised to lift restrictions on family travel and cash remittances to Cuba -- an important first step. We’d like to see him go further, to resume the people-to-people or “purposeful travel” allowed in President Clinton’s first term and to push Congress to lift the travel ban and repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton law prohibiting trade with Cuba. The premise of the trade embargo was that strangling the Cuban economy would cause a popular uprising and regime change. But even at its most vulnerable, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc that had subsidized the island, the Cuban government didn’t fall.

When Fidel Castro finally did step down this year, it was to hand the reins of power to his younger brother, Raul. This was hardly the democratic transition the international community had hoped to see. Many people throughout the world admire Cuba’s defiance of the United States, and the revolution has brought gains in health and education, but Cuba remains a one-party state without fundamental rights of expression and assembly, and individual freedoms. Its economy is broken; generations have lost faith in the revolution and, lacking prospects, want to join the larger world. Though still in the shadow of the bearded comandante, Raul Castro is more pragmatic than his brother about the need for a well-functioning economy, and he has publicly urged workers to increase efficiency and productivity. Like many countries, Cuba was hurting from high oil and food prices earlier this year, and three hurricanes struck the island in the fall, causing billions of dollars in damage. The subsequent global economic crash and falling oil prices potentially limit the aid that Cuba’s main patron, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, can offer. There may be an opening here for economic reforms.

The United States already exports about $700 million worth of food to Cuba annually under a 2000 law allowing agricultural trade for humanitarian reasons. Obama should use his presidential prerogatives to expand this, as well as dispatching officials to talk, as they have in the past, about issues of immigration and security. As part of any discussions, the U.S. government must press for human rights reforms, along with freedom for about 200 political prisoners in Cuban jails. (And yes, explore the prisoner trade Raul Castro has proposed in recent days.) But human rights no longer can be an obstacle to talk and trade with Cuba. The United States does business with many regimes with checkered human rights records, from Egypt to Russia to China, which is officially a communist state.

Peaceful changein Cuba, 90 miles from Florida, is in the interest of the United States. We think communication, travel and trade are excellent ways to push for reform of the one-party state. Tourists carrying books and ideas serve as ambassadors for democracy. Manufactured goods speak for the creativity of an open economy. The Cuban people are highly educated after a 50-year revolution, and extremely resourceful after half a century of economic hardship. Their aspirations are fertile ground for change.