01/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cheap Grace

Big things keep getting worse, as the Bush presidency befuddles its way through the creep of its final days. President Obama will inherit an economy in crisis, a middle class in freefall, poverty rising, festering wars, catastrophic climate changes -- the list can go on. But given the scope of conservative misrule over the past 30 years, Obama has one significant advantage. In area after area, much goodwill can be garnered simply by embracing common sense. Call it cheap grace. A good place to start would be with changing our preposterous policy towards Cuba, the little island 90 miles off our coast.

A changed policy has two parts -- closing Guantanamo prison and lifting the embargo. Obama surely will order the closing of Guantanamo, ending that disgrace as a statement of respect for international law and opinion. He'll get greater cooperation from allies in providing asylum to the innocents that have been caged in Guantanamo. Revised judicial proceedings will be established to deal with the others. With a whiff of imagination, the administration might consider inviting the Cuban government to join in turning Guantanamo -- long outmoded as a base -- into a jointly run center of health research for the hemisphere.

The sticking point, of course, is the embargo. Castro's revolution turns 50 on January 1. He has outlasted 10 presidents. The US imposed the embargo after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and its policy has been virtually frozen ever since. President after President, Democrat and Republican, in the Cold War and after, have sustained essentially the same failed policy, which has earned the condemnation of the United Nations, the human rights community, and our neighbors in this hemisphere.

The embargo is justified as a means to punish Castro for his unacceptable behavior and a lever to get him to change. Over time, the behavior deemed most unacceptable has changed. First it was that he was a communist who nationalized private property, much of it owned by Americans. Then he was a Soviet puppet, a threat to stability across the hemisphere. Then he was an unending source of impudence, embarrassing the US by exposing our wrong-headed embrace of South African apartheid, our condemnation of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as terrorists, our support for the thug Savimbi in Angola, our hysterical reaction to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, when suddenly that little country became the "most important place in the world."

Now there is no Soviet Union, Mandela is universally beloved, Savimbi abandoned, no one much cared when Ortega was re-elected president of Nicaragua, Castro remains unrepentant, but dispatches doctors not insurgents to neighboring counties. So currently, the US maintains the embargo as "leverage" to encourage Cuba to free its political prisoners, sponsor free elections, protect free speech and embrace democracy.

We do not impose a similar embargo, needless to say, on the communist dictatorship of China. Octavio Paz, the great Mexican author and statesman, once bemoaned Mexico's fate as "so far from God and so close to the United States." Castro's Cuba shares a similar dilemma, too important to the US politically and too insignificant economically.

The embargo is a perfect example of Obama's argument about the folly of doing the same failed thing over and over gain and expecting a different result. The regime, as even the right-wing Washington Times editorial concluded this week, has been bolstered not weakened, by US policy, which cemented Castro's stature as a leader willing to stand up to Goliath. The embargo has increasingly isolated the US in the hemisphere, divorced us from our allies, and has become a symbol not of Castro's misbehavior but of America's imperious impotence.

Earlier this month, the 23 tiny Caribbean nations of Caricom met in Cuba to discuss the economic crisis, while expressing the hope that "the transformational change which is underway in the United States will finally relegate that measure [the embargo] to history." Last Wednesday, the leaders of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations said the unilateral enforcement of sanctions was "unacceptable" and urged Washington to comply with U.N. resolutions condemning the embargo.

Now the passions that once sustained the embargo have begun to fade, the zealots have passed on, the old furies are harder to summon. Some thought the embargo's longevity was a product of the CIA's fervid institutional hatred of Castro for routing their rag tag army at the Bay of Pigs, and foiling their sometimes comical, often destructive lawless efforts to assassinate him or destabilize his regime. Now even the Agency has grown tired of disgracing itself.

For years, the embargo has been sustained by the rabid anti-communism of Florida's Cuban community, a vital voting block in a swing state. But the younger generation of Cuban Americans supports lifting the embargo. McCain lambasted Obama for having the nerve to suggest that he'd be willing to talk with Cuba's leaders, but Obama won the majority of Hispanic votes in Florida while taking the state. Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, the font of Castro hatred, called on Obama to lift the restrictions on travel and money transfer for the Cuban community, saying "Simply waiting for democratic reforms in Cuba "is not a policy. Ladies and gentlemen, it is surrender."

Will there be a new policy? Obama's aides have announced that he'll "very quickly" lift the travel and money restrictions on Cuban Americans imposed by George Bush by executive order. When he ran for Senate in Illinois in 2003, Obama committed common sense on the question, stating in response to a questionnaire that "I believe that normalization of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene."

Such reason, of course, was endangered in the presidential campaign where he was battered first by Hillary Clinton and then by John McCain for supposed weakness on foreign policy. In a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, Obama said that "my policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Libertad." And that road must begin with "justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly, and its must lead to elections that the free and fair."

That surely makes sense. The US should encourage Cuba to join the move to greater democracy and respect for human rights. The question is what policy will be used to pursue that end.

In his Miami campaign speech, Obama announced that while he would lift travel restrictions, "I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations"

That could be a continuation of the old failed policy, demanding that the Cubans dismantle their regime in exchange for lifting the embargo. Or it may be a major change: free the 200 plus political prisoners and we'll lift the embargo. That could be the basis for a deal.

The new president would be wise to invite Sen. McCain to join his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with the Cuban leadership, resolve all the disputes about damages on nationalized properties and covert war casualties, set the terms for cooperation on terrorism, immigration, drugs, and the framework for trade and investment, get an agreement on freeing political prisoners if possible, announce the end of the embargo, and send the bill to Congress to write that into law. Just do it.

Hackles will be raised. The Christian Right might get exercised. The old anti-communists will emit reflex howls. But so what? There is no defense for a policy that has enjoyed decades of unadulterated failure.

Lifting the embargo could help launch a new good neighbor policy. As Obama said, "We can continue as a bystander or we can lead the hemisphere into the 21st century... It's time for a new alliance of the Americas." It would be hailed by leaders across the hemisphere, and across the world. it would end the growing isolation not of Cuba, but of the US in the region. And lifting the embargo will surely be more effective in opening up Cuba. The Cuban regime will have a far more difficult time dealing with the threat posed by the infusion of investors, tourists, relatives, human rights activists, and journalistic scolds than dealing with aggravations of the embargo they know. Obama would gain massive credit for ending a policy that serves no useful purpose. Cheap grace. His administration might even be able to begin a dialogue in the hemisphere about the challenges of this century as opposed to the symbols of the past.