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Why Reconciliation Succeeded With Vietnam, but Is Failing With Cuba

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Twenty years passed between the end of the war in Vietnam and establishment of normal relations by President Bill Clinton.

In the interim the U.S. maintained a unilateral economic embargo and sought fruitlessly to diplomatically isolate a country that had grievously wounded our pride and caused tens of thousands of war time casualties.

Yet today we are Vietnam's largest export market, a major source of foreign investment and second only to China as a source of tourists. Presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state and foreign ministers make regular warm visits to each other's capital.

At no point along the way to normalcy did we require that Vietnam change its system of government, release political prisoners or adopt our standards of human rights. Today, while still a one party state with limits on organized political opposition, Vietnam is a more open society than when I first visited in 1975 or when the U.S. normalized in 1995.

Some aging exiled leaders, militant refugee organizations and their allies in Congress object to our relationship, but they don't represent majority sentiment in their own communities and have marginal impact on U.S. government policy.

Far closer to home (perhaps the cause of the problem) we have carried a grudge against Cuba for five decades, insisting that even the potential of change in our relationship requires first modification in their form of governance and domestic acts like the release of political prisoners.

Few Americans dispute these are desirable ends, but two thirds do not see them as legitimate prerequisites for normal travel.

In a sense Cuba has called our bluff. After extended conversation with the Catholic Church and the Spanish government it has begun release of all its 150 prisoners considered by international human rights agencies to be political.

Significantly the first to be freed, with the option of exile to Spain or remaining in Cuba, are 52 men still imprisoned from the Black Spring arrests of U.S. linked opponents in 2003.

Perhaps in response, there were reports in several newspapers last month that the Obama administration planed to undo restrictions on non-tourist travel by Americans that were imposed by its predecessor in 2004, officially in reaction to the Black Spring convictions.

Predictably the quintet of Cuban Americans in the Senate and House, and allies such as south Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have forcefully sought to block or minimize proposed changes.

Subsequent reports suggest the president and secretary of state approved the changes but at the behest of political operatives in the White House the announcement will be delayed until after the mid-term elections on November 2d.

From my experience with Vietnam, I believe that would be a mistake.

Until the White House expends its full authority to allow non-tourist travel, opponents will mount the same campaign against each step of liberalization, just as they did last year when President Obama through general licenses allowed Cuban Americans unlimited visits for family reunion purposes.

Once the action is taken, the fight is over. Just as opponents voice minimal objection now to Cuban American travel, they can do little more than grouse about ongoing travel for educational, cultural, humanitarian, dialogue, professional exchange, religious or humanitarian purposes.

By granting general licenses to IRS recognized not-for-profit organizations, the administration could enable widespread encounters between diverse Americans and Cubans without the costly delay of application to the Office of Foreign Assets Control -- and diversion of OFAC energies from its proper national security agenda.

At the same time all U.S. travel agents and tour operators must be enabled to book tickets and accommodations for legal travelers. This will eliminate the unfair advantage given to some 200 OFAC licensed travel service providers and to businesses based outside the U.S.

The administration will be attacked for providing an economic subsidy to the dastardly Cuban government. However even if 100,000 non-tourists go to Cuba in the first year, they will be a drop in the bucket compared to 2009 arrivals of 2.4 million, 300,000 of whom were Cuban Americans.

Cuba should in turn make its own analogous gesture, freely allowing students and others to come to the U.S. for academic, professional and family reasons.

On the up side, the president will be true to his own values that favor dialogue over repetitive ineffective confrontation. As in any human encounter, real learning is a two way street and we can expect accelerated progress in both countries toward a fuller relationship and domestic relaxation.

Ironically, this is the most likely inducement to real reform within Cuba as it was within Vietnam. However, it will be on Cuban terms, and not necessarily to the liking of hard line exiles in Florida and New Jersey who still dream of using U.S. power to restore their painful losses.

Letters can be sent from here to the president calling for boldness on travel to Cuba.