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Obama's New Cuba Travel Rules: This One's Not Just for Miami

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Just how significant are the new rules announced by the Obama administration to expand purposeful travel and economic assistance to Cuba? Do they signal a renewed "thaw" in bilateral relations, coming as they did just after diplomatic reports that an American USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba more than a year ago may soon get to go home? Are they a "response" from the Obama administration to the Raul Castro government's recent economic reforms and release of dozens of political prisoners? Are they a far and weakened cry from what should have been a full and confident overhaul of the poster child for dumb U.S. policies that cost us far more in treasure and credibility than they've ever achieved? Or are they this administration's return to its pledge early on to move Cuba policy out of the past and into the future? The correct answer may be in the eye of the beholder.

In comparison with the Clinton administration's initiatives of more than a decade ago, these new rules don't break a lot of new ground. But they do break some, in giving general licenses to religious and credit-earning academic travel, and in authorizing other U.S. airports to host licensed flights to Cuba. What's so frustrating is this administration could have come in and swept away much of the deadwood Cuba policy it inherited - and earned valuable points abroad - but instead it dragged its feet and allowed itself to be bullied for two years.

By the same token, no matter how little risk Cuba policy reforms posed juxtaposed by economic and foreign policy benefits for the U.S., the White House has been engulfed in one crisis or political battle of far greater proportions after another, including inheriting the worst financial crisis the nation has faced in decades, fighting a surprisingly protracted battle over its signature goal, health care reform, getting in deeper in Afghanistan, fighting Congress over stimulus spending and tax policy and suffering a crushing defeat at the polls in November. And that's just the really big stuff. So in that context, bold and sensible policy reforms in a non-crisis policy arena like Cuba understandably got sidelined, or worse (and not so understandably), subjected to questionable political litmus tests.

When reports first surfaced last summer that new rules were in the offing, Hard-line darlings Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Albio Sires (both Democrats, and dedicated fundraisers for their party) reported their advice to the White House - Cuba policy reforms would hurt the Democrats' chances in the November election. When the rules didn't come, many assumed the White House had bought that argument, even though several Florida Democrats who toed a hard line on Cuba still fell to the Republican/anti-incumbent tide that swept the rest of the political map.

Luckily, policy finally beat politics in this case, if not by much. (The White House announcement reiterated that the embargo would stay in place, after all.) So what comes next? Hopefully the administration will use the momentum of this announcement to re-establish credible mutual expectations of constructive engagement with the Cuban government, and to begin to reap real results through official talks and regular Interests Section contacts.

But the administration should avoid any thought of "reciprocity" rhetoric right now; it's just an invitation to Havana dictate where - and if - we go next from here. It would be unwise to say to the Cubans, essentially, "It's your turn now," especially when the rules still represent modest change in the big picture relationship. (And indeed, the Cuban Foreign Ministry offered halting praise for what it called "positive but limited" measures). Obama's approach may lack the boldness that could really move relations forward, but issuing these rules does demonstrate a will to move forward, not backward. Hopefully that is the message Cubans will take away from this announcement, even if the government has so far offered tepid interest.

With these new rules, Obama has finally dispelled the notion that he would only act on Cuba for political gain in Florida - which is smart, given that Cuban Americans are no longer single issue voters anymore (and those that are would never consider voting for Mr. Obama anyway). Many influential Miami moderates supported and even pressed for broader people-to-people engagement with Cuba, but a far larger constituency of interests across the country, including travel and agriculture sector businesses, human rights and religious organizations, academic institutions and foreign policy and national security advocates, dogged Congress and the administration for progress on Cuba. As long as this isn't the end of the road but a new beginning - as President Obama promised in April 2009 - these new travel rules offer hope for that elusive progress in U.S.-Cuban relations.

A version of this post appeared on The Havana Note.