PD Editorial: Taking a new direction with Cuba

For more than five decades, the United States ignored Cuba where it could, ostracized the Cuban government when it couldn’t be ignored and hoped that the Castro regime would just disappear.

President Barack Obama’s decision this week to restore diplomatic relations and roll back restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba isn’t an act of capitulation. It isn’t extending the U.S. imprimatur for a totalitarian government in the Caribbean.

Obama simply acknowledged the obvious. The Cold War approach didn’t work.

A different strategy - engagement - is long overdue.

The strategy isn’t novel. President Richard Nixon renewed ties with China in 1972 and pursued a policy of détente with the Soviet Union. President Bill Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995, and it has since become a major U.S. trading partner.

In each instance, engagement has paid dividends for the United States without eroding U.S. support for democracy and capitalism or silencing U.S. criticism of human rights abuses by autocratic governments.

Soon after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, the island nation became a crossroads in a global power struggle between Washington and Moscow. The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 aimed to topple Castro, and the Soviet move to place nuclear missiles in Cuba a year later brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Cuba long ago ceased to be a threat, and the world just marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which heralded the end of the Soviet bloc. Yet presidents of both parties have stubbornly resisted a thawing of relations with Cuba, enabling the Castro regime to blame its economic failures and repressive policies on the United States.

As Obama noted, the official antagonism between the neighboring countries “is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

That helps explain why visits to Cuba have become routine, with sanctions standing as little more than bureaucratic obstacles to educational and cultural exchanges. Despite the embargo, the U.S. is Cuba’s largest supplier of food and agricultural products.

The steps announced Wednesday by Obama fall within his executive powers, but it will take an act of Congress to lift the embargo that took effect 53 years ago.

In addition to restoring full diplomatic relations, Obama said the United States will open an embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961. The U.S. also will ease restrictions on travel and banking and will allow Cubans residing here to send more money to relatives on the island. Americans who travel to Cuba will be allowed to bring back up to $400 in goods.

The agreement, which was put together over 18 months with the help of Canada and encouragement from Pope Francis, also resulted in the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. aid worker who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years, and an American intelligence agent who had imprisoned for 20 years. Cuba also agreed to release 53 political prisoners.

Renewing ties will bring new commercial and tourism possibilities. There are political benefits as well - opportunities to foster relationships with democratic reformers in Cuba and to undercut claims that the U.S. is responsible for Cuba’s economic problems. Latin American nations that opposed the U.S. policy have one less excuse for ignoring Cuba’s abysmal human rights record and suppression of democracy.

Hardliners in Congress are lambasting Obama’s change of direction as an undeserved reward for the Castro government. But a policy of isolation failed for more than 50 years, and there’s no reason to think it would work in the next 50. It’s time to try something else.

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