The changes in U.S. Cuba policy announced Friday by the Obama administration represent a welcome first step in changing the failed half-century old policy that has sought to bring change in Cuba by isolating the island nation from the United States.
The administration announced that within the next two weeks it would make it easier for religious and academic organizations to send delegations to Cuba; return regulations governing people-to-people trips to Cuba to those that pertained during the Clinton Administration; and expand the number of airports that can be used by tour operators as embarkation points to the island.
In addition, it expanded the amount of money that can be sent by Americans to ordinary Cuban citizens.
Administration spokespeople explained that all of these steps were taken to strengthen Cuban civil society. They will certainly have that effect.
In fact, the time has come to completely normalize relations with Cuba, end our economic embargo. Here's why:
1). Our policy of isolating Cuba has failed to bring change to Cuba. Fidel Castro and his successor Raul Castro, have outlasted presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and two years of the Obama Administration.
The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting to get a different result. By that definition, the past policy of attempting to isolate Cuba was, to put it charitably, daft.
This failed approach to Cuba was originally justified as part of the Cold War policy of "containment" of the Soviet Union. That policy has now outlasted the Soviet Union by over two decades.
A shooting war in Vietnam in which almost 50,000 Americans were killed has come and gone. Vietnam is now a reliable U.S. trading partner and favorite tourist destination, but the policy of isolating Cuba -- with which we have never had a violent conflict -- remains.
Richard Nixon long ago made peace with China which, though still an officially Communist country, is now one of our most crucial trading partners and holds much of our country's debt. But our policy of isolating relatively tiny Cuba -- just 90 miles from our shore -- continues.
Of course one of the reasons for the failure of this ancient policy is that it was long ago abandoned by every other country in the world. Canadians vacation at Cuban resorts. South Americans sell Cuban agricultural products. Our European allies all have friendly relations, but our policy of isolating Cuba persists.
2). The only real accomplishment of past isolationist policies toward Cuba was to restrict the rights of U.S. citizens. Even after the changes announced Friday, most ordinary Americans are still prevented from traveling to Cuba. It is the only place on earth to which our own government prevents us from traveling. It is the freedom of Americans that is being abridged -- and we should be just as outraged by that limitation on our freedom as we are by a gag order on our freedom of speech or an abridgment of our freedom of religion.
What is particularly galling is that past restrictions on our freedom to travel to Cuba have actually helped limit the opening of Cuban society that is its alleged rationale. Want to open up Cuban society? Then engage them in travel and trade. Invite their students to the United States and encourage our students to study in their universities. Encourage cultural exchanges, baseball games, soccer tournaments. The new policy begins to do those things, and it's about time.
But to the extent it persists, the policy of isolating Cuba and limiting American travel there not only limits our freedom -- it actually prevents the presumed goal of our policy -- to open up Cuba.
3). By maintaining our economic embargo we penalize the American economy and cost American jobs.
Our economic "boycott" does not so much prevent Cuba from getting the things its needs (though it definitely makes the lives of ordinary Cubans more difficult), as it prevents American companies and farmers from selling them American products.
Creating American jobs should be our government's number one priority yet the Cuban embargo prevents the sales of American-made products to a customer that would be ready and willing to buy. The result? Other countries sell Cuba the same products and benefit by the creation of jobs in their countries rather than the United States.
4). Our failure to normalize relations with Cuba undermines American interests throughout the world -- and particular in Latin America.
U.S. policy towards Cuba has been a major sore point with other countries in Latin America, who view it as a vestige of Yankee paternalism toward the entire region. And it is used by those who want to harm America as another piece of anti-American propaganda.
Far from isolating Cuba, we have isolated ourselves. Virtually all of America's major allies have normal economic and political relationships with Cuba. Last year, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the seventeenth time -- in seventeen years -- to condemn our economic embargo of Cuba -- this time by a vote of 185 to 3.
In December the thirty-three Caribbean and Latin American nations that are members of the Rio Group voted to give Cuba full membership and called on the U.S. to end the embargo.
5). Domestic political support for the embargo -- especially among Cuban Americans in Florida -- has crumbled.
The proximate political reason for our past Cuba policy has been the large Cuban American voter block in southern Florida. Many Cuban Americans emigrated here immediately after the Cuban Revolution half a century ago and were virulently anti-Castro.
In fact, with the Republican takeover of the House, hard line anti-Cuba Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen is now the Chair of the House Committee on International Relations. She works with a well organized hard-line lobby, that has raised a large financial war chest to punish Members of Congress who support changing our relations with Cuba. But Ros-Lehtinen and her hard line allies are increasingly isolated in the Cuban American community itself.
Polls now show that 67 percent of Cuban Americans support allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba (Bendixen poll: Conducted April 14-16, 2009 -- Cuban Americans only).
The Obama Administration's recent announcement of limited changes in Cuban travel policy is overwhelmingly supported by Cuban Americans. A December poll showed a strong majority of Florida voters (67 percent) and Florida's Cuban American voters (59 percent) support permitting Americans to visit Cuba for limited purposes such as academic exchanges, travel by religious and cultural groups, athletic events and research missions.
The same poll showed that Cuba policy is far from the most important issue affecting the votes of Cuban Americans today. In an open-ended question asking Florida Cuban Americans which issues would be most important in determining their vote for President in 2012, the economy was first (45 percent) and jobs was second (13 percent). Less than one percent of Cuban voters mentioned Cuba in any way.
When asked if they would be more or less likely to support President Obama if he restored full diplomatic relations, 28 percent of Florida Cuban Americans said it would make them more likely and 29 percent said less likely. In other words, the Cuba issue has ceased to be a factor in determining the votes of the majority of Florida Cuban Americans.
In fact, another poll of Cuban Americans taken last November showed 55 percent of Cuban Americans favored lifting the embargo.
A massive array of organizations has welcomed the Administration's new initiatives and support further change. The Catholic Church, both in Cuba and the United States has repeatedly called for an end to the economic embargo.
Friday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) praised the Administration's actions. The Chairman of the USCCB, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New York, issued a statement that said:
These needed new policies are modest but important steps towards advancing our hopes for a better relationship between our people and the people of Cuba, a relationship which holds great promise of fostering positive and real change in Cuba.
Amen to that.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.