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Now Is the Time to Change U.S. Cuba Policy

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For half a century, United States policy toward Cuba has been aimed at isolating and defeating the regime. That policy has demonstrably failed. Fidel Castro and his successor Raul Castro, have outlasted presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and almost two years of the Obama Administration.

The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting to get a different result. By that definition, the policy of attempting to isolate Cuba is -- to put it charitably -- daft.

This failed approach to Cuba was originally justified as part of the Cold War policy of "containment" of the Soviet Union. That policy has now outlasted the Soviet Union by two decades.

A shooting war in Vietnam in which almost 50,000 Americans were killed has come and gone. Vietnam is now a reliable U.S. trading partner and favorite tourist destination, but the policy of isolating Cuba -- with which we have never had a violent conflict -- remains.

Richard Nixon long ago made peace with China which, though still an officially Communist country, is now one of our most crucial trading partners and holds much of our country's debt. But our policy of isolating relatively tiny Cuba -- just 90 miles from our shore -- continues.

Of course one of the reasons for the failure of this ancient policy is that it was long ago abandoned by every other country in the world. Canadians vacation at Cuban resorts. South Americans sell Cuban agricultural products. Our European allies all have friendly relations, but our policy of isolating Cuba persists.

The only real accomplishment of U.S. policy toward Cuba has been to restrict the rights of U.S. citizens. Current policy prevents ordinary Americans from traveling to Cuba. It is the only place on earth to which our own government prevents us from traveling. It is the freedom of Americans that is being abridged -- and we should be just as outraged by that limitation on our freedom as we are by a gag order on our freedom of speech or an abridgment of our freedom of religion.

What is particularly galling is that this restriction on our freedom has also helped limit the opening of Cuban society that is its alleged rationale. Want to open up Cuban society? Then engage them in travel and trade. Invite their students to the United States and encourage our students to study in their universities. Encourage cultural exchanges, baseball games, soccer tournaments.

In other words, the restriction on American travel to Cuba not only limits our freedom -- it actually prevents the presumed goal of our policy -- to open up Cuba. That's just plain dumb.

Of course, the same goes for our economic "boycott" which does not so much prevent Cuba from getting the things its needs (though it definitely makes the lives of ordinary Cubans more difficult), as it prevents American companies and farmers from selling them American products.

Members of Congress spend hours of time on the House and Senate floors extolling the priority of creating American jobs and promoting the sale of American products, and then prevent the sales of those products to a customer that would be ready and willing to buy. The result? Other countries sell Cuba the same products and benefit by the creation of jobs in their countries rather than the United States.

And to top things off, U.S. policy towards Cuba has been a major sore point with other countries in Latin America, who view it as a vestige of Yankee paternalism toward the entire region. And it is used by those who want to harm America as another piece of anti-American propaganda.

The proximate political reason for this patently ridiculous policy is the large Cuban American voter block in southern Florida. Many Cuban Americans emigrated here immediately after the Cuban Revolution half a century ago and were virulently anti-Castro.

But as the years have gone by, the attitudes of the Cuban American population have fundamentally changed. Polls now show that now 67% percent of Cuban Americans support allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba (Bendixen poll: Conducted April 14-16, 2009 - Cuban Americans only). Even among Cuban Americans, it's no longer good politics to favor a travel ban to Cuba. Yet the old guard hardliners continue to intimidate many politicians - not the least because Florida is almost always a swing state in Presidential elections.

To be sure, there have been some modest modifications in American policy. American farmers have been allowed to sell product to Cuba for some time - though on much less favorable terms than their international competitors. Some educational travel is allowed - but only with a special license from the Federal Government.

President Obama has vowed to change our policy toward Cuba. Not long after he took office he allowed freedom of travel to Cuba for Americans of Cuban descent - a move that was wildly popular among Cuban Americans.

Within the next several weeks Congressman Collin Peterson, Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, will mark up legislation in his committee that will allow farmers to sell agricultural products to Cuba on much more favorable terms - and allow Americans of all sorts to travel there.

A broad coalition of groups supports the bill ranging from major farm organizations to organizations that focus on American policy toward Latin America. The measure has bi-partisan support, support from advocacy groups aligned with both sides of the aisle, the Catholic Church and most major human rights organizations.

You'd think that would be enough to guarantee passage, but the hard line Cuban American lobby has created a PAC that is spreading contributions aimed at dissuading Members from supporting a measure that is so obviously good public policy.

One of their arguments is that persistent Cuban human rights abuses should not be "rewarded" by this kind of measure. Of course no one really believes that Cuba is a "threat" to American national security. And most human rights groups believe that the best way to address human rights issues there is to open up Cuban society and culture.

Just last week, seventy-four of Cuba's most politically prominent dissidents - including Miriam Leiva, the well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez, and the hunger striker Guillermo Farinas - signed a letter to the U.S. Congress asking them to support legislation to legalize travel to Cuba and increase sales of U.S. food. They wrote in part:

We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.....

The supportive presence of American citizens, their direct help, and the many opportunities for exchange, used effectively and in the desired direction, would not be an abandonment of Cuban civil society but rather a force to strengthen it. Similarly, to further facilitate the sale of agricultural products would help alleviate the food shortages we now suffer.

If the core of the Cuban dissident movement is in favor of allowing travel to Cuba, who in their right mind could argue that it would "reward" repression in Cuba?

Just as important, of course, it is ridiculous for the United States to tie our policy to what the Cubans do. Our policy should be based on what is good for the people of the United States, and those goals include eliminating the current pointless restrictions on our own citizens' right to travel, allowing our companies to sell products to Cuba, benefiting from the jobs that increased exports provide - as well as answering the call of Cuban dissidents to open up Cuban society.

And it's just plain hypocritical to make the argument that we shouldn't trade with Cuba when we trade massively with countries like Saudi Arabia and China that certainly don't win anyone's annual human rights award.

Finally, polls show that most Americans - Democrats, Independents and Republicans -- support the elimination of government restrictions on travel to Cuba as well as restrictions on the American sales to the island.

President Obama is expected to sign the Peterson bill if it is passed. Hopefully Congress will give him the opportunity to reset our relationship with Cuba and create a policy that finally works to maximize American interests.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.