Research: Commentary

Time to re-engage Cuba, at last

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 31, 2009 | Article


U.S. policy toward Cuba long ago ceased to make any sense. We have normal diplomatic and trade relations with China, the largest communist country in the world, and equally normal relations with Vietnam, a communist country with which we once fought a bloody and divisive war. But for the past eight years, we have refused to even deal with Cuba, a country which poses no threat whatever to us and which is open to dialogue.

President George W. Bush's stated objective was to "bring down the Castro government." But how was he to accomplish that? With the U.S. embargo? Not likely. Given that Cuba can trade with every other country in the world, the fact that it can't trade with the United States is not likely to be decisive. It may sometimes be an inconvenience, but it isn't going to bring Castro down or force Cuba to do anything.

Through diplomatic isolation perhaps? No, that is a pipe dream. The U.S. has no support whatever for its efforts to isolate Cuba. The vote in the U.N. General Assembly every year on the U.S. embargo goes overwhelmingly against us. Some 180 countries vote to condemn the embargo. Only Israel, and sometimes Palau or the Marshal Islands, vote with us. And although Israel votes with us, it is one of Cuba's very active trading partners. In other words, it votes with us but then ignores our policy.

Cuba is at this point an active and fully accepted member of the international community. Efforts to persuade other governments not to deal with it, to isolate it, are simply based on wishful thinking. It was not always that way perhaps, but it is now.

Under Bush, our Cuba policy reached a dead end. It achieved nothing, was going nowhere. And anyway, after 50 years, surely it was time to try something new, something that might work. Bush, of course, would not have. But we now have a new president. Will President Barack Obama begin to move toward a more sensible Cuba policy? The immediate answer is that anything has to be better than Bush's approach. And a great deal could be accomplished with very little.

Obama has said he will remove the restrictions on Cuban-American family travel imposed by Bush, so that families can now travel freely rather than only once every three years. And he will also remove the restrictions on the remittances they send to their families in Cuba. Those will be welcome steps.

Hopefully, he will also remove the restrictions on academic and educational travel imposed by Bush in 2004, and also encourage the Congress to pass the necessary legislation to remove all travel restrictions, so that Americans can once again travel freely to the island. And it should be a two-way street. The U.S. should again begin to issue visas to Cubans, especially to Cuban academics, artists and professionals to come to conferences and exhibits in the U.S. Nothing very dramatic here, but these in fact would all be huge steps forward.

And it would also be enormously important for Obama to make it clear that our objective is no longer "to bring down the Cuban government"; rather, it is to deal with it pragmatically and correctly through normal diplomatic channels. That would put things in an entirely different context.

These steps in themselves would do much to improve the atmosphere between the two countries. And of course the U.S. should open a dialogue with Cuba. How can two countries resolve the disagreements between them without talking, without dialogue? Once we begin talking, we will be on a road we haven't traveled with Cuba in many years, a road that ought to lead to a more constructive relationship - one in which the embargo can finally be lifted and the two nations can fully normalize relations.

Wayne S. Smith is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. He is former chief of the U.S. interests section in Havana and is author of "The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of the Castro Years."

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