This is the event that fifty years of U.S. policy was designed to stop.
Fidel Castro has announced his retirement. He will be replaced in a peaceful succession, without the violent upheaval that U.S. policy makers have been predicting since the 1960s.
Now that Fidel Castro has announced his retirement, it's time to retire our Cold War era Cuba policy. It failed.
Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has tried to kill or topple Fidel Castro and replace Cuba's government and economic system with something more to our liking. They never succeeded.
It was the express purpose of the U.S. embargo, with sanctions more comprehensive than any we impose on Iran, North Korea, Sudan, or Syria to stop this transition. But it couldn't.
For years, the U.S. embargo has been rebuked in lop-sided votes in the U.N. General Assembly. On October 30, 2007, when we were last drubbed by a margin of 184 to 4 (and one abstention), not a single country in South America, Central America or the Caribbean supported our policy. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, three countries praised by President Bush one week earlier for their support of U.S. policy against Cuba, joined the condemnation -- so did Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, a nation whose democracy was born with the help of U.S. sanctions.
As the Cuba embargo sullies our image around the world, it undermines the national interest and our highest values here at home. The embargo sacrifices the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to travel. It cruelly divides Cuban families on both sides of the Florida straits. Trade sanctions cost U.S. businesses about $1 billion annually, and deny U.S. citizens access to vaccines and other medical treatments. Enforcing the embargo drains resources from the war on terror. By isolating the American people from the Cuban people, we stop our citizens from doing what Americans do best; we can't offer Cubans our support or our ideas, and we're unable to benefit from what they could offer us.
I have been to Cuba close to thirty times in the last seven years and I have spoken to Cubans of every stripe -- fans of the revolution and diehard opponents of President Castro.
Cubans by their nature have vastly divergent opinions, except on one fundamental point: it is Cubans living on the island -- not politicians in Washington, not their kinsmen in Miami -- who must decide for themselves what happens next in Cuba. They cherish their sovereignty, they reject violence and instability, and they want the United States to respect those values as much as they do, especially now that they can see a future past President Fidel Castro and beyond the 50th year of their revolution.
There is a debate happening in Cuba right now, triggered by Raúl Castro on economic reform that is remarkable in its sweep. Leaders have spoken to us with unusual candor about the inability of Cubans to keep pace with prices, but they are committed to raising living standards in ways that are consistent with the preservation of Cuba's political system. We have to have clear minds about their intentions for this debate, its limits, and where it might lead.
Now would be a perfect time to send the long overdue signal that the United States is no threat to Cuba's national security, that we honor the aspirations of average Cubans, and that we are capable of having a constructive relationship with their government.
If President Bush cannot answer the call to history that has been issued in Havana, perhaps his successor will respond with greater imagination when he or she takes office in Washington next year.
People here should not misunderstand this historic moment: the Cubans we know, even determined political opponents of Fidel Castro, are proud of their country, proud of its accomplishments, and persuaded that only Cubans in Cuba -- not politicians in Washington or hardliners in Miami -- have the right and responsibility to determine their own destiny. We owe them that opportunity, now more than ever.
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