01/10/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

A New Year Different then Yoani's

Yoani Sanchez has posted a New Year message on the Huffington Post bemoaning as usual the state of affairs in her homeland. She is a brilliant stylist but her pitch is for an external audience, ill disposed to Cuba as it exists today.

Ms. Sanchez is entitled to her views, and has played a helpful role of supporting travel to Cuba by all Americans in conflict with the position of Miami hardliners. But how often does she write about positive sides of Cuban life?

I was in Cuba three times in 2011 and have visited at least annually for the past 15 years. From numerous private conversations with old friends and random encounters I received an impression of growing optimism that real changes were finally underway. There is also a discernible growth of small scale entrepreneurial activity.

Two lengthy year end reviews of economic change in Cuba convey a similar perspective:

* by Paul Havens of AP in Havana

* by the Herald's own Mimi Whitfield

Based on extended personal observation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the years of their economic transformation, I see a similar process beginning in Cuba that gathers momentum from its success and learns from its mistakes. Everything will be justified as being done to strengthen socialism, just as the Vietnamese still do, but as the process continues socialism takes on new forms and functions and society becomes more open.

It took the US eight years to recognize the significance of Vietnam's policy of doi moi (renovation) and lift our unilateral embargo. I hope we are not equally obtuse with Cuba. So far the signs are not encouraging.

Ms. Sanchez could use her podium to more positive effect if she devoted as much energy to analyzing and decrying the impact of US economic warfare on her country through a far reaching embargo as she does to Cuba's domestic faults.

The embargo does not excuse everything but its impact cannot be denied.

She should appeal to her pen pal, President Obama, to use his power to really open travel for average Americans, to end OFAC's attacks on Cuba's international use of the dollar and its other extraterritorial annoyance measures, and to remove the country from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

A friend recounted that an American group arrived in Cuba with many members carrying Ms. Sanchez's book as their source of insight into the country they were visiting. That's OK unless that is all they are reading. How many were aware of the excellent books by Lou Perez of the University of North Carolina, including Cuba in the American Imagination, so they could understand what they encounter in the present through the past that shaped it?

Attitudes in Washington do not foster relaxation in Cuba. President Castro announces 2,900 prisoners are to be released and all the US does is ask about Alan Gross. Don't 2,900 Cuban families matter? Couldn't President Obama have used that as a reason to let Rene Gonzalez of the Cuban 5 do his probation at home with his family, which would have already happened if he weren't a dual citizen.

Embedded in the public justification for President Obama's important reforms of travel for Cuban Americans and purposeful trips for the rest of us is the goal of regime change. The president made that objective explicit in interviews with Hispanic reporters several months ago.

Is that only political opportunism, attuned to an outdated analysis of Cuban American voters and the predilections of a key ally in Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation? Or does it reflect the dominance of "intelligence" and "national security experts" who believe this time Cuba really is on the verge of upheaval, or will be any day now when both of the Castros are gone?

If Cuba allows opposition groups to openly demonstrate as Ms. Sanchez advocates, will Washington end all of its "democracy" programs and Radio and TV Marti broadcasts plus make all USAID expenditures subject to normal vetting by the host government? Or would Washington see that as an opportunity to self-righteously increase its intervention in Cuba's domestic affairs?

Ms. Sanchez was recently quoted by Reuters, "Rights are not to begged for, they are to be exercised." Does she urge Americans to ignore the travel restrictions that deny their rights?

I do think it wrongheaded that she is not allowed to go abroad to collect her awards and I share her disappointment that long awaited migratory reforms were not announced last month by President Castro.

Virtually every Cuban I know believes that Cuba's Cold War residue of exit visas/white cards and restrictions on return need to be ended. It certainly will be embarrassing to Washington if Cuba permits greater freedom of travel than the US.

Even with risk to a high priority year end comprehensive finance bill, the White House successfully overcame efforts by hard-liners in Congress to role back travel for Cuban Americans to the draconian levels of President Bush.

This week the president moved against Republican obstructionism by recess appointments of important domestic positions. He should show equal determination in foreign policy by making recess appointments of Roberta Jacobson as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Jonathan Farrar as ambassador to Nicaragua.

Why should Marco Rubio, a disingenuous Republican junior Senator who is a candidate for Vice President, be able to claim credit on the right for holding hostage a rational US policy in the Americas, and punishing professional foreign service officers for daring to be smart about Cuba?

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development


Links and resources

* Fulton Armstrong, former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published a devastating critique in the Miami Herald of the misguided covert action program of USAID and its implications for Alan Gross.

My analysis of the implications of the President's defeat of the hard liners on Cuban American travel and remittances in thehavananote

Nelson P. Valdés and Sue Ashdown analyze the difficulty Cuba faces in distributing broadband , even after getting a fiber optic connection in Progreso Weekly

A sign-on letter urges both Presidents Obama and Castro to be compassionate with six prisoners held as a result of the political conflict between our countries.