Cuba's Sixth Party Congress and Vietnam's

11/23/2010 11:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vietnam's Sixth Party Congress adopted the policy of doi moi to renovate state dominated socialism in December 1986. European countries and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) responded by strengthening their diplomatic and economic ties. The US did not lift its unilateral embargo until February 1994, more than seven years later.

President Clinton's action, followed in 1995 by full normalization of relations, reinforced Hanoi's process of internal reform. Today Vietnam has a thriving mixed economy with a vibrant market sector. The US is its largest export market, a leading investor and a primary source of tourists. According to the Institute of International Education's Open Door report, Vietnam sends the ninth largest number of students to the US, 13,112 last year.

Cuba's Sixth Party Congress next April will debate even more substantial economic and social renewal than Vietnam initially undertook, but similarly in a context of US hostility.

So far the Obama Administration is forgetting the Clinton precedent and wasting an historic opportunity to be a positive factor for change. It could readily provide additional space in Cuba by ending restrictions on non-tourist travel, removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and reversing OFAC's efforts to block Cuba's international exchange of the dollar.

Here is a recent example of the kind of silly and destructive policy that can be easily canceled by the Obama Administration:

Oct 18, 2010 10:43 AM. SWIFT turning away Cuban banks.

Access to the SWIFT interbank system may become difficult or impossible for Cuban banks as of March 31, 2012, Cuba says in its annual report to the United Nations about the economic impact of U.S. sanctions.

The SWIFT financial transmission system plays a crucial role in international banking transactions.

According to the Cuban report, the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications SCRL (SWIFT) told the Banco Central de Cuba (BCC) that a new version of the software participating banks must use will not be available to Cuba because it includes U.S. technology and components subject to sanctions under U.S. laws. SWIFT will introduce the 7.0 version of its SAA software on March 31, 2012.

Among the many on line newsletters and blogs that cover Cuba, I find Progresso Weekly to offer particularly useful insight into the views of forward looking sectors of domestic opinion, most perceptively in articles by Manuel A. Ramy, editor of its Spanish-language version. In the current issue Ramy is interviewed by Francisco Aruca about the implications of the US midterm elections:

Manuel A. Ramy (MAR): The changes currently taking place respond, as I've often written for more than two years, to specific requirements of the Cuban reality. They are the demands of reality, they are not bargaining chips or concessions to international factors. Having or not having an impact at that level would be a consequence, not the goal.

FA: You speak of "international factors." Don't they play a role?

MAR: For all governments, and more so in the case of Cuba, the international climate is a consideration when formulating policies. But in the Cuban case, domestic circumstances are so pressing that I do not consider that the international climate will slow them down, although it might affect the extent of some steps, and I stress "might" and "extent."

Often, people don't take into account that a climate of harassment and hostility is restrictive. A while back, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said in an interview something that always echoes in my head: the Cubans "have built the democracy they've been able to, not the one they've desired."

By contrast, a relaxed atmosphere, such as the policy maintained so far by the current Spanish government, would allow more flexibility and greater depth in some changes. But beware, the depth does not imply a renunciation of the socialist option that is the course announced by the Cuban government.

The White House is showing some spine in fighting for the essential New Start treaty. When will it be Cuba's turn?

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President Obama missed an opportunity to open the door to non-tourist travel in the early fall. To accommodate hard liners in Congress, he postponed the announcement until after the mid term election--which took place more than two weeks ago. Why the delay now? Nearly 600 people have used a change.org letter to urge the White House to be bold on people-to-people travel.