Florida gave us all a gift last night.
In the election returns, hidden in plain view, is license for President-elect Obama to fundamentally rethink U.S. policy toward Cuba and expand on his incremental approach.
Obama won Florida, he carried Miami-Dade County handily, and yet he enters the White House owing no debt of political obligation to the hard-liners in the exile community.
In fact, three Miami-area Congressional candidates who agreed with Obama's minimal reforms on Cuba were all defeated in their campaigns by the Cuban-American Representatives who supported John McCain and President Bush's hard-line on Cuba.
This disposes of the argument, once and for all, that a presidential candidate couldn't carry Florida or win the White House unless he bowed to the hard-liners and supported the harshest possible approach to U.S.-Cuba relations.
The logic was always self-interested; it gave a small but powerful group in South Florida a monopolist grip over a policy that suited their interest instead of the national interest.
President-elect Obama, you proved them wrong, and now you have the freedom to make even bigger and better changes in a policy that everyone knows is a failure.
President Bush put cruel restrictions on the rights of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island and limits on the financial support they can provide. You have already promised to repeal those restrictions. Now is the time to go further.
Every American should enjoy the constitutional right to travel freely to Cuba. Today, anyone who wants to visit Cuba - scholars, members of religious communities, businessmen and farmers, artists and athletes - everyone has to go hat in hand to the Treasury Department and ask permission of the bureaucracy to have a license before they can travel legally to Cuba. Most are told no.
Not only is this offensive to our liberty interests, but it denies us and the Cuban people the chance to interact, learn from each other, and scale the barriers that exist to the free flow of information. Tearing this barrier down - by legalizing travel for all Americans--would send a strong and a positive signal to Cuba's government and its people that the United States of America is ready to engage with them in a respectful way.
My friends in Cuba were paying very close attention to this election. One of the dearest sent me this message only moments after word of Obama's victory was celebrated in Havana: "I believe that beginning now we are going to be able to realize a good part of our dreams. I am very happy for you, for your country, for Cuba and for the future."
Obama should end all restrictions on travel and enlarge his goals for reforming Cuba policy.
Nothing could be better for our image in Cuba and Latin America, and nothing would be more in keeping with the message sent by his election to people all over the world. Now that Florida's hard-liners are out of the political equation, this is a breakthrough opportunity for President-elect Obama, and he should make the most of it.
Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, is author of the forthcoming report: "9 Ways for US to talk to Cuba and for Cuba to talk to US".
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