Reactions to Obama's announcement of normalization relations with Cuba were to be expected, but have already taken on a character that is largely divisive and unwarranted. Until Sen. Rand Paul's announcement that he thought this was a "good idea" I thought I was the only conservative an America that thought so, but it is truly an action that is long overdue. The critics of this action have a wide range of complaints. Some simply think anything Obama does is wrong and leave it at that. One variation on this theme is that lacking any success in the foreign policy area it is a desperate act to do something before he leaves office as his legacy. There is merit to this argument, but since it is for the good of both the U.S. and Cuba, we should take it and not complain.
Critics such as Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio strongly object on family or personal grounds based on events that took place before they were even born and facts than no longer exist. As the national debate on this issue evolved, it is worth considering some of the criticisms and whether the new policy makes sense. At the outset even most of the critics are willing to acknowledge that the release of the three Cuban spies on the U.S. side and Alan Gross and an intelligence "asset" by the Cubans, as well as some 53 political prisoners is reasonable, and paved the way for normalization.
One major complaint is that it is a "bad deal" and the U.S. is getting little more than Alan Gross back as well as an intelligence operative freed. In reality Cuba doesn't have a great deal more to give. There is no nuclear weapons program to abandon; no hostile acts against the U.S.; no Cubans fighting with ISIS or much else. Apart from the 53 prisoners to be freed, Cuba has agreed to do more in the human rights area, which is far more than many current allies.
Another theme is that the Castro government is a "rogue" and dictatorial, while their democratic opposition has been repressed for years, which may be true to some extent. At the same time, it is important to remember that the regime Castro replaced in 1959 was anything but democratic - it was led by a corrupt dictator closely tied to the Mafia. Indeed, the same crooks that built Las Vegas also put the casinos and hotels in Havana and did little for the working class. In the 1950s however, Havana was a fun place and few Americans cared much about democracy there or the plight of Cuba's poor. Current reality is that Raul Castro is going to retire and the idea of a popular democratic uprising is a fading myth. Even if Cuba were to hold free and open elections, it's highly likely Castro and the Communist Party would win. Here Rand Paul is right. Fifty years of embargo simply hasn't worked, and probably won't in another fifty.
Cuba's days as an actual state sponsor of terrorism are probably well past. Their current dealings with North Korea are more likely a result of economic desperation and not political belief. Dealing openly with Cuba and solving the root cause of their economic plight - the ongoing embargo - is probably the best approach. Such an approach has worked well with Vietnam and other former enemies and there is no reason to believe that this isn't a better path to take here.
In the final analysis political change in Cuba is most likely to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. The last Castro will retire - he will not be deposed, and a socialist government will continue in some form for years to come. Most likely it will follow a model similar to China or Vietnam and not North Korea. With some aid and urging from the U.S. human rights issues will probably improve, although it would be naïve to believe all these issues will be resolved any time soon. At least Castro has stated his intention to work on the problem, which is more than many of our current allies are willing to do.
Looking at some of the specifics Obama has proposed, reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana is easy. It has actually been "open" as the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy for years and is well-maintained. It was never stormed or looted as in Tehran or Libya. Increasing the allowed money transfers, called "remittances," from Cuban-Americans to their relatives in Cuba greatly improves the lives of the relatives and none of the critics have been too outspoken as to why this is a bad thing.
Obama has also suggested improved access in the telecommunications area, which deserves support. The Cuban leadership has for several years supported greater Internet access and this is a good thing. Even with inevitable government restriction it puts the Cuban people in far greater touch with the outside world and on a path to progress. To be effective, it must first be done as part of a program endorsed by the Cuban government with which they are comfortable - which is no different from either China or Vietnam. As capabilities grow and the Cubans become more comfortable with the new technologies, controls will likely become relaxed to the benefit of the Cuban population and the U.S. as well.
While Obama has proposed some minor changes to the travel policy he doesn't go far enough and not many understand what is really going on. It isn't "illegal" for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba without a Treasury Department license. It is just illegal for them to spend any money there in excess of $100 there. This isn't a law, but rather a Treasury Department regulation that can be changed without Congressional approval and should be. The way the regulation is currently enforces is simply a farce. Tourists who are not in one of the 11 designated categories for a special license can go to Cuba by signing on with one of the few tour operators who have a "general license." This simply forces them to spend more money to do so. At the same time U.S. tourists are free to visit Iran, North Korea, Libya and a host of other truly hostile nations with no regulation at all. Perpetuating the farce on travel to Cuba simply makes no sense.
The hardest issue to resolve, and the biggest problem for the Cubans, remains the embargo which has been in place for over half a century and now serves no real national security or economic interest of the U.S., and only continues as a source of hardship for Cuban-American families and the Cuban people. This can't be lifted without an act of Congress and already Senators Rubio and Menendez, among others, have threatened to block any such action. Unfortunately they may succeed, at least in the near term. It would be helpful if such legislators could look past their memories of events long past, and current issues with Obama to what the future would be like with Cuba as an ally in hemispheric development rather than a pariah state forced to trade with the likes of North Korea. The scenario Marco Rubio and others would like to see for Cuba simply isn't going to happen. The path Obama has suggested is a far more viable and realistic option. There is little potential downside for the U.S. and far better prospects for the Cuban people.