06/29/2010 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The House Agriculture Committee Asks America to Step Off the Sidelines in Cuba

When Darsi Ferrer, a Cuban dissident emerged from nearly a year's confinement for buying black market construction materials, a reporter asked him who should get the credit for his release.

He credited the Cuban Catholic Church. And then he said, "What should be the solution in Cuba? Dialogue. The dialogue of the Church and civil society; between the people and the government; between the Diaspora and Cuba; the dialogue between the European Union and the government." Among those who could help the Cuban people, he never mentioned the United States.

This is the sorry place that our fifty year old policy of isolating Cuba has left our country and our credibility as a champion of democracy. We've become what Senator Richard Lugar reported one year ago, "a powerless bystander, watching events unfold at a distance." It's not just that the policy is wrong; it's made us irrelevant.

That suits hard-line supporters of the U.S. embargo just fine. They oppose any loosening of trade or travel restrictions against Cuba without human rights concessions from the Castros. They celebrate reports of food shortages in Cuba and urge us to tighten the screws just a little longer believing the regime will collapse or hunger will incite rebellion among Cubans.

Putting aside the depravity of starving innocent people as a tactic of U.S. foreign policy, history has taught us this approach won't work. When Cuba experienced a wrenching contraction at the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union withdrew its support, Cubans suffered but nothing else happened. Stability prevailed, and the system emerged intact, later to affect the transfer of Cuba's presidency from Fidel to Raúl Castro and to celebrate the golden anniversary of their revolution.

Rather than continuing the fiction that isolation will bring down the Castro government, the House Agriculture Committee proposes an entirely different approach. In hours it will consider bi-partisan legislation [The Peterson-Moran bill] to end the ban on legal travel to Cuba for all Americans and remove key impediments that hold down sales of U.S. food to the Cuban market.

The bill offers no credits to Cuba's government and keeps the embargo firmly in place. But by filling their streets with American tourists to engage the Cuban people and filling their tables with American food to meet their nutritional requirements, the legislation seeks to engage Cubans by connecting our nation's greatest assets to Cuba's most abiding needs.

Defenders of human rights in our country - from the Catholic Church and the AFL-CIO, to Human Rights Watch and Freedom House - all think engagement with Cuba would better reflect our interests in democracy and human rights.

So do exponents of mainstream foreign policy thought. The Council on Foreign Relations has called for formal diplomatic recognition of Cuba. The Brookings Project on U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition - calling U.S. policy a failure, costing U.S. influence on Cuba and isolating our country in the Western Hemisphere-- recommended initiatives starting with expanded trade and travel and ending with normalization.

The Cuba Study Group, representing business and community leaders of Cuban descent, offered this stinging rebuke of U.S. policy: "Apart from the dubious ethical/humanitarian underpinnings of intentionally targeting the Cuban people to strike at the Castro regime, current travel and remittance restrictions do little to weaken the Cuban government's repressive machinery, let alone bring about regime change," and then urged the end of all travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans. Their position reflecting majority support among Cuban Americans for the freedom to travel more broadly, confirmed in poll after poll.

Most strikingly, however, are what the most prominent civil society activists on the island have said -including Yoani Sanchez, the blogger, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, imprisoned in 2003 and later released, Guillermo Farinas, the hunger striker, and more than 70 others -who recently took the extraordinary step of signing an appeal to Congress asking for passage of Peterson-Moran.

To critics who say, what possible difference could American tourists in Cuba make? The dissidents' letter answers: "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 society, but rather a force strengthen it." To those who argue against U.S. food exports to Cuba, they say: "Similarly, to further facilitate the sale of agriculture products would help alleviate the food shortages we now suffer."

Change is hard. The Agriculture Committee is already enduring searing criticism from hard-liners for consider this new approach. But Ms. Sanchez calls current U.S. policy toward Cuba "a blunder," and she is right. Passage of the Peterson-Moran bill will create thousands of American jobs and, more importantly, give our country a new chance to stand with Cuba's people. It should pass.