On the Anniversary of Cuba's Revolution, the Case for Evolutionary Thinking Here at Home

On New Year's Day, as Cubans celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Revolution, we in the United States should remember another milestone.

January 3rd will be the 48th anniversary of President Eisenhower's Cold War-era decision to break diplomatic relations with Cuba. Ike might be surprised that a veritable conga line of his successors stood by the policy of trying to overthrow, isolate, or starve Cuba for five decades -- even after the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the policy had long since demonstrated its uselessness.

This is a moment for President-elect Obama to decide whether he wants to be the 11th president of the Cold War to champion a failed policy or the first president of a new era to be an advocate for a far more sensible course.

This is Obama's Cuba opportunity, and this is the direction he should follow.

On day one, he should take executive action to restore the rights of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island and to support them financially and without limitations.

He should get the Treasury Department out of the travel business, so that the faith community, the business community, artists and academics, among others, no longer have to apply to a government bureaucracy on bended knee for permission to travel to Cuba - permission that under the Bush administration was routinely denied.

The President has much of that authority already, but he should promise Congress that he will sign legislation to authorize travel by all Americans to Cuba as soon as they put it on his desk.

He should then remove restrictions on trade so that the American economy and the Cuban economy can enjoy the benefits that freer commerce can bestow - an increase in jobs and living standards, and the opportunity to learn and share ideas about innovation, management, environmental standards, working conditions, and the like.

Most of all, he should engage the government of Cuba in a manner that respects its sovereignty, just as our allies across the world do every day, especially if he believes - as he stressed in the campaign - in the kind of diplomacy that emphasizes negotiation as means for settling disputes and differences.

It is time to talk to Cuba - about problems in the neighborhood, security, law enforcement, environmental protection, and migration, to name just a few - and to talk about these issues without preconditions. President Raúl Castro has signaled he's ready to do this, and we should not let this moment pass.

There is ample historical precedent for conducting such talks, as Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande, in particular, brilliantly establish in their new article for Cigar Aficionado "Talking with Castro," and there is no shortage of subjects to discuss, as my organization demonstrates in our new report, "9 Ways to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US."

Were Mr. Obama to reunite families, he would lift an emotional burden from the Cuban-American community and give long-needed support to those who have worked so hard and in such difficult circumstances to reconcile the Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Were he to fully open travel, commerce, and diplomacy, the impact on Cuba would extraordinary, and he would give all Latin Americans a new reason to engage with the United States.

Most of all, in doing these things, Obama would send an unmistakable signal to Latin America and nations everywhere that our country is ready to embrace this world not as we found it 50 years ago, but as it exists today.

Few actions could make these two January anniversaries, more memorable or momentous, or give the Obama presidency such a promising start.

Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, is co-editor of the forthcoming report: "9 Ways for US to talk to Cuba and for Cuba to talk to US".