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Let's Not Get Ahead of Ourselves on Cuba

Like many others, I was happy with the recent news that the Obama administration is going to relax some of the travel and business restrictions the U.S. imposed on Cuba decades ago. The more removed we become from the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in the first place, the more the embargo seems like a relic of a bygone era. Conceived at the height of containment, the hands-on, fight-Communism-in-every-corner-of-the-globe philosophy that guided America for much of the middle of the 20th century, the policy is the epitome of an ideology that ceased to be pertinent in the 1970's. The truth is, what's most astounding about this whole situation is not that the outdated policy is finally being rectified, but that it was able to survive this long in the first place.

Interestingly, today's policy shifts represent a realization of the goal that containment was initially designed to achieve so many years ago: the facilitation and protection of democracy around the world. The increased exposure to the outside world which will result from the relaxation of these restrictions will in all likelihood hurt the oppressive Castro regime. Of course, I don't have any illusions about better cell phone coverage or more frequent vacation visits from American relatives inciting Cubans to rise up in democratic revolt anytime in the near future. Still though, it's hard to dispute the fact that the embargo has allowed Fidel and Raul Castro to make Cuba more of an island than it already is--isolated and disconnected, with little or no readily available evidence of the better life real freedom can provide. In short, it's helped to keep the Cuban people down, and deprived them of any incentive they may have had to push for increased liberty.

Having said that, the United States should proceed with caution. First of all, we need to understand that relaxing the embargo won't bring democracy to the island overnight. The Castro brothers will not simply let the shifting opinion of a public getting its first taste of freedom undo the regime they've spent decades building. That's why we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves and call for complete normalization of relations as soon as possible. Seeing that it's in Raul Castro's best interest as president to have the embargo dismantled, an astute statesman would make any further relaxations conditional on Castro ending some of his regime's most grievous policies curtailing political, personal and economic freedoms.

We also need to understand that Cuba is not entirely toothless. In recent years it has retained close relationships with North Korea and Iran and has served as an inspiration to troublesome leaders, many in our own hemisphere, such as Hugo Chavez. Furthermore, the Castro regime has been crafty to a fault in past attempts at negotiations, going back on its word and repeatedly failing to work in good faith with the international community. While Cuba certainly isn't the threat that it used to be, it's still a sovereign nation dominated by a cruel dictatorship, not a non-issue to be trifled with.

So while there's no doubt that some very good things might come of these relaxed restrictions, let's take a step back and consider the reality of the situation before we call for rapid normalization, as some have been doing. We'll probably do a better job of bringing liberty to the Cuban people if we use what clout we have (i.e. the barriers we've erected between their nation and ours) to provide Castro with incentives to change. We also need to do everything we can to facilitate the burgeoning freedom movement amongst Cuban citizens: if there's anything we can be sure of when it comes to toppling oppressive regimes, it's that bottom-up works better than top-down.

Beginning to undo the decades-long travel and trade restrictions was something of a freebie for the Obama administration: a big symbolic move that won't be met with too vocal a resistance. However, the real challenge for the President is what he does next. After his recent European tour, we've seen that he can play nice with the other nations of the world. However, effectively bringing freedom to the people of Cuba and ushering their country into the twenty-first century requires that he take a hard line when it comes to negotiating further relaxation of the embargo. By all means, we should look to continue normalizing our relations with the island nation--however, we ought to do so with caution.