THE BLOG
12/23/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Is 53 Years Long Enough to Conclude Our Cuba Policy Has Failed?

On December 17th, President Obama and President Raul Castro made history. After 53 years of animosity rooted in the Cold War, they finally put our two countries on a new path.

I worked for two years to help obtain Alan Gross' release from a Cuban prison, and flying to Cuba to bring him home was a joyous experience I will cherish always. Mr. Gross' case was the catalyst that finally brought to an end a policy that failed to achieve any of its objectives and isolated the United States. With the strong support of Pope Francis, the President has wisely charted a course that will promote reconciliation between the people of our two countries, advance our national interests in the hemisphere, and provide hope for democratic change in Cuba.

The response to the president's announcement here and abroad has been overwhelmingly positive, from the U.S. business and agriculture communities to our allies around the world, and on the streets of Havana. Common sense dictates that it is beneath the United States to continue treating a tiny neighbor that poses no threat and whose people have much in common with us as an enemy.

Not surprisingly a handful of members of Congress continue to defend a policy they fully acknowledge has failed -- through eight U.S. presidencies -- and they reflexively have condemned the president's actions. Their arguments boil down to this: Cuba remains a one party state whose government severely punishes dissent and is a sponsor of terrorism.

On the first point they are right. Cuba's government is very repressive. Political opponents and human rights advocates are harassed and jailed. The solution of the president's critics, however, is more of the same, even though it hasn't worked for five decades, did nothing to help Alan Gross or the Cuban people, and has provided the Castro government with an excuse to blame the United States for Cuba's repressive policies and the daily hardships Cubans suffer under a broken economic system.

The president's critics also apply a flagrant double standard. On the one hand they rightly say that Cuba should free political prisoners; hold free elections; provide unrestricted access to the Internet; permit Cubans to travel abroad; allow independent journalists to practice freely; and give the International Red Cross access to Cuban jails. Like most who have opposed the U.S. embargo, I agree with all of this.

But on the other hand they ignore that many U.S. friends and allies, with whom we not only have diplomatic relations but to whom we provide taxpayer aid and military aid, do not come close to meeting this standard. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan are but three examples. The critics apparently believe that engagement through diplomatic relations and trade everywhere except Cuba is in our national interest, despite the repressive and corrupt policies of other governments.

It is also ironic that while they rightly call on Cuba's government to permit its citizens to travel freely -- ignoring that Cubans, including dissidents, are traveling far more freely today than two years ago -- they defend a U.S. policy that restricts Americans from visiting Cuba. There is no other country in the world that American tourists are prevented from traveling to by their own government, yet the President's critics defend this absurd double standard.

The critics' other argument is that Cuba is a sponsor of terrorism. It is true that it was once, and there are members of a Basque separatist group that renounced violence in 2011 and poses no threat to the United States, living out their remaining years there. But what the critics don't say is that the primary basis for their argument evaporated two years ago, when Cuba began hosting negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC rebels to end a 40 year civil war. Colombia's President Santos, a close U.S. ally, has praised Cuba's role.

Finally, the president's critics vehemently accuse anyone who doesn't share their infatuation with the ineffective, unilateral sanctions as an apologist for the Castro brothers' repressive policies and guilty of "appeasement." This would, by implication, also apply to every other country, including our closest allies, who long ago established diplomatic relations with Cuba.

As the author of much of the U.S. human rights legislation enacted into law in the past 20 years, I know that such smears are both inaccurate and offensive. Normalization with Cuba will be a process, and its pace and scope will depend in part on the actions of the Cuban government to permit dissent. A good start would be to join international conventions that protect human rights. As in other countries with repressive governments, our embassy in Havana will strongly defend the rights of Americans and Cubans to freedom of expression and religion. And it will support U.S. commercial interests, U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, private Cuban entrepreneurs and exchanges with the Cuban people, the majority of whom were born after the 1959 revolution. They are Cuba's future, and rather than continuing to isolate them and add to their hardships we should do what we can to help them prepare for what lies ahead.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy -- D-Vt., and president pro tempore of the Senate -- has long worked to reform U.S. policies on Cuba. He chairs the Appropriations Committee's State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.