Much more needs to change

April 25, 2009

Carlos Saladrigas, Miami Herald

By lifting all restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, President Obama fulfilled a key campaign promise, did the right thing, but also made a very smart strategic move. These restrictions never made any sense, as the United States should have never been in the business of dividing families. That's the Cuban regime's doing.

But there is more to an effective Cuba policy than righting a wrong. The right policy needs to be geared to empowering the Cuban people to be the agents of their own change. To accomplish this, much more needs to change. Momentum is building. The pro-democracy activists in Cuba literally unanimously praised the steps taken by the White House. There has never been a time when the Cuban-American hardliners have been left more isolated and out of step with the people inside Cuba. Increasingly more people and groups within the Cuban-American community are coming to grips with the failure of a 50 year-old policy. I am often amazed at how proponents of the status quo look for every argument to resist change, when they should be looking instead for arguments to defend their lack of results.

The Obama administration has indicated that it is undertaking a deep review of Cuba policy. It is very necessary to do so. At the heart of our failed policy lies one element that distinguishes Cuba policy: isolation. However, we have not isolated Cuba from the rest of the world, but we have succeeded in isolating ourselves from the Cuban people.

Isolation has never been successful in bringing down totalitarian systems. Conversely, constructive and principled engagement has always worked to facilitate transitions.

In Cuba's case, the best periods of growth and development for the country's budding civil society and pro-democracy movement have always coincided with periods of greater relaxation and openness with the United States.

The president described Cuban Americans as the 'best ambassadors for change.' He is right, but America's rich and vast civil society is the next best ambassador. America's culture is powerful and corrosive to totalitarian systems, precisely because it is based on personal liberties. Unlike any other culture in the world, America's culture is despised and feared by despots around the world. Why keep these forces at bay?

To label American travelers to Cuba as 'useless sun bathers' is to demean every American as a valuable ambassador of American values throughout the world. Americans were never precluded from visiting the so-called Evil Empire and its satellites, and are not prohibited from visiting any other country in the world -- Cuba is the lone exception.

Instead of isolation, a strong case can be made for allowing unfettered American travel to Cuba, based on the following considerations:

• Extensive foreign travel makes repression more difficult and economically costly to the regime.

• The more Cuba depends economically on the United States rather than on our foes, the more influence we can exercise over the eventual transition.

• American travelers are unique, because America is the Cuban regime's bogey-man. Therefore, the more the people know us, the better.

• Accepting foreign travelers carries a high political cost, and the regime knows it. This is why Fidel Castro has always tried to prevent foreign travelers, even those from the former communist bloc.

• Travelers help to atomize aid to pro-democracy activists. They bring openness and information.

• Servicing foreign travelers is employment heavy, thus benefiting many more ordinary Cubans. The more Cubans become economically better off, the less they depend on the regime.

Supporters of the status quo argue that travelers from other nations have not brought change to Cuba, but we have denied Americans the right to travel to Cuba for almost 50 years without any results, either. The fallacy lies in the underlying premise that there is a silver bullet to cause regime change, when in fact only the Cuban people can do that on their own terms. By opening up to the Cuban people with information, contacts, ideas and resources, we help to empower them to be the protagonists of their own future. It is all about the people, not the regime.

Carlos Saladrigas is chairman of the Cuba Study Group.

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4/25/09 Current Record