It’s not hard to see why most Americans quickly tire of national politics. Personal attacks and distortions have become the norm, and that’s especially true in the debate over U.S.-Cuba policy. At first glance there aren’t any good choices. In Havana, you have the same old rhetoric and tactics of repression from a five-decade-old dictatorship.

In Washington, you have a small group of hardliners almost entirely dedicated to smearing and intimidating anyone who expresses an opinion different from their own on U.S. policy. To date they’ve been far more efficient in turning off well-meaning Americans from participating in the Cuba conversation than in actually helping to bring democracy to Cuba. Today there’s an alternative.

Regrettably, what’s left of the old hardliner crowd has once again resorted to desperate tactics to try to distract from a new debate over how to better help the Cuban people while advancing the best interests of the United States. In his May 14 online oped, Cuba trade embargo and the politics of deception, Frank Calzon, one of the longest serving peddlers of the politics of intimidation, made several baseless claims and personal attacks against a new advocacy organization, #CubaNow, and me, its executive director.

#CubaNow was created precisely to move past these old politics. It was somewhat amusing to be lectured on transparency and efficiency by someone whose own deputy was thrown in jail for embezzling more than $500,000 in taxpayer dollars not long ago.

The purpose of #CubaNow is to shed light on the realities that are taking hold on both sides of the Florida Straits, and foster a real debate over how to adapt to them. Despite modest economic reforms in recent years, the Cuban regime continues to fall short of meeting many of the most basic needs of the Cuban people and needs to do more on human rights. However, there are changes taking place on the island, and we cannot ignore them.

The first and most important reality is that America’s blanket sanctions framework commonly known as the “embargo” and codified under Helms-Burton and other legislation hasn’t worked. That’s why polls conducted over the past 10 years have shown a trend resulting in a majority of Americans and Cuban Americans expressing support for lifting the travel ban to Cuba and revising or repealing many of the sanctions in place.

The second reality is that President Obama’s policy changes in 2009 allowing greater travel and remittances on the part of Cuban Americans have coincided with modest economic changes in Cuba, which together are fueling greater changes than we had seen in the last five decades.

Hardliners haven’t caught up. They continue to lobby for keeping the same old policies in place despite the overwhelming volume of evidence that it has been a colossal failure. Like their kindred spirits in the Cuban regime, Washington’s Cuba hardliners have done a disservice to the American people by imposing a false choice over Cuba policy for decades. To hear them tell it, it’s all or nothing, pro-embargo or pro-Castro, basically Patria o Muerte. That false choice has robbed us of a real debate, and we reject it.

#CubaNow believes our policy toward Cuba can and should be tailored to simultaneously empower the Cuban people, pressure the Cuban government over on-going human-rights violations, and advance U.S. national interests throughout our hemisphere. Our advertising campaign in the Washington, D.C. metro system is aimed at President Obama because we believe he is best positioned to facilitate the process of change in Cuba by getting the government out of the way so the American people can help strengthen Cuban civil society.

Given the recent surge in independent economic and political activity on the island, the president should move forward with a more-robust policy package. He should further eliminate obstacles to engagement between the American and Cuban people, lifting counterproductive sanctions like the travel ban and increasing support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs.

As a 501(c)4 advocacy organization, #CubaNow has and always will comply with all disclosure requirements under U.S. law. If any of our donors want to publicly announce that they support our effort, we encourage them to do so. However, we want our organization to serve as a vehicle for all Americans to participate freely in promoting a Cuba policy that actually works without fear of personal attacks or reprisals. Attacks like the one that stained these pages.

If #CubaNow must serve as the target of hardliner mudslinging in order for others to feel safe to speak out and openly participate in this debate, then so be it. We welcome it, and we welcome a real debate with fresh ideas. After all, if we want to promote freedom of speech in Cuba, no one should trample on it in America.

Ric Herrero is executive director of #CubaNow, a 501(c)4 advocacy organization. Online at www.cubanow.us and @Cuba_Now on Twitter.



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