01/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

As Cuba's Regime Turns 50, How About Some Common Sense -- Finally?

Maybe you've heard of that old Cuban joke about an island youngster asked what he wants to be when he grows up. The answer: a tourist, who can travel and live the "high life," unlike the average Cuban. But as the Castros' slowly evolving revolution reaches its half-century mark on January 1, almost simultaneously with one of the bigger shifts in U.S. political history, the stars may be finally aligning to give the reality underlying such gallows humor a push in the right direction. This month an FIU/Brookings Institution poll showed that even most Cuban-Americans now agree a change in tactics is needed.

The brothers Castro have outfoxed ten U.S. presidents, thanks partly to the embargo put in place by John Kennedy in 1961, before Barack Obama was born. If, as promised, our new president rolls back at least its more meanspirited aspects -- including severe limitations on family visits -- chances are they won't outlast the eleventh.

Cuba likes to call the embargo a "blockade" because of its draconian, militaristic ring. But thanks to Soviet backing, commerce with various U.S. allies and others, and now Venezuela's support and more than $400 million annually of exempted U.S. trade, our "blockade" is instead both a joke and a gift that keeps on giving; its formal existence lets the régime deflect blame for its own mismanagement and repression; though not everyone still buys this, quite enough do. Meanwhile, the U.S. has wasted billions on propaganda efforts like Radio and TV Martí, neither of which reach most Cubans, while allowing Hugo Chavez' Venezuela to be the one to expand their Internet lifeline to the outside world.

Certainly we should think twice about allowing the export of, say, equipment usable by the military or state surveillance apparatus. But we could influence Cuba positively and peacefully by re-allowing not only family visits but all travel by Americans (restrictions self-evidently unconstitutional but punted by the Supreme Court's deference to Federal foreign policy and national security claims). Let me explain.

I started visiting Cuba a decade ago, when a Clinton-era "people-to-people" policy permitted even commercial tour operators to send groups if they could be dressed with the fig leaf of "cultural exchange" or some such. I often witnessed the inequality between foreigners and themselves grating on locals -- as when entering one of Havana's top restaurants, the Café de Oriente, and overhearing a guard muttering, "Jeez, I'd sure rather be dining on lobster instead of the crap they give us." One friend of mine, once a Communist Party liaison within his university department, was denied entry to a resort area, Playa del Coco, while I, the "imperialist enemy," was waved through.

Such "tourism apartheid" measures disappeared after Raúl Castro took over in early 2008, but since most Cubans are still too impoverished to take advantage, inequality remains rampant. In this context, imagine a flood of Americans -- including many Spanish-speaking Latinos -- mingling with locals, infecting them with uncensored information and subversive notions of democracy and free markets. The winning of hearts and minds would far outweigh any financial gain to the Castro government (that hoary objection of exile hardliners and their pet politicos). Unlike in gargantuan China and faraway Vietnam -- Communist police states with which the U.S. trades happily -- on a small, nearby island of 11 million the American influence unleashed would call Cuba's bluff and have dramatic impact. Recently in the Party newspaper Granma, Communist grandee Armando Hart worried it would open "a new chapter in the ideological war between the Cuban revolution and imperialism." Read: Can we keep control?

All of this greatly alarms U.S. "embargo-industrialists" -- activists and politicians alike -- who have turned the embargo into an eternal gravy train for themselves and their associates, with fat, poorly supervised subsidies for dissident aid and the abovementioned propaganda, most of which never make it to the island. None dare admit the embargo has bombed, nor satisfactorily explain why not even tweaking it is worth trying. Instead, they bluster that November's re-election of South Florida's pro-embargo congressional hacks mean everybody down here's still on board with a spectacularly failed policy.

Now, for the sake of our Constitution, America's image and interests in Latin America and beyond, and obviously the longsuffering Cubans, the Obama Administration can finally return some sanity to an autistic corner of foreign policy long ceded to corrupt operatives and their ideologically blindered followers. This could be one of the bold, shining symbols of our country's restored rationality and openness to the world. After all, is there not something frankly insane about countries like North Korea and Libya stricken off the official U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, but not Cuba?

Furthermore, politically it's never been easier. Not only are a majority of Cuban-Americans finally onboard, but more non-Florida Republicans are willing and sometimes eager to relax restrictions; America's most important business groups have urged the same thing; key anti-Castro groups such as the Cuban-American National Foundation are no longer embargo absolutists; and Obama-Biden won Florida's Hispanics and South Florida without votes from the aging, shrinking hardcore sea in which the embargo-industrialists swim (such diehards will never become Obama supporters, anyway). The transition team has already showed signs of realizing this by tapping Eric Holder and Greg Craig, demonized by hardliners for their roles in the Elián González drama of 2000.

I'm not naïve; change is rarely easy or simple. But throw open the free market of ideas, let people and information flow freely, and freedom will eventually follow. So even with all the domestic and foreign-policy challenges facing the incoming administration team, we should keep encouraging them to do not just the right thing but the effective thing on this issue of historic importance both symbolic and practical. It's the American way, and it's about time.