Strait Talk

Barack Obama doesn't want you to know about it, but his administration just made the biggest move in more than a decade to open up Cuba.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced his decision this month to ease restrictions on Americans traveling and sending money to Cuba, he did it late on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend — a old trick from the White House playbook, used by presidents hoping to make controversial policy changes with as little uproar as possible from the U.S. Congress and the media. But Obama shouldn’t have been so quiet about the move — it is the best Cuba policy decision the United States has made in years.

The new directive reverses restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush in the run-up to his 2004 reelection campaign. In August 2003, a group of Cuban-American Republican politicians headed by then Florida state legislators Marco Rubio and David Rivera — who were elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, last year — told the president that clamping down further on travel to Cuba would help win the support and enthusiasm of the older generation of Cubans in South Florida, a crucial source of Republican votes in a state that had swung the 2000 presidential election.

Obama’s new policy restores the “people-to-people” contacts between the United States and Cuba that existed under Bill Clinton’s administration, restoring the embargo exemptions for Americans traveling for humanitarian, religious, and academic purposes that were disallowed under Bush. More direct flights to the island — albeit chartered ones — will be allowed, and Americans now can transfer remittances of up to $500 per quarter, as long as they aren’t going to the Cuban government or Communist Party.

The changes could not have come at a better time. Cuba has entered a period of profound change: The Cuban state is laying off between 500,000 and 1 million workers and opening up the nonstate sector to reform in hopes that the private economy can absorb them. An increase in private-sector jobs, along with planned cuts to government subsidies, is bound to loosen the strings of dependence that have tied Cubans to the state for half a century. It is a revolutionary redefinition of how Cubans relate to their government, and it means that the reforms will necessarily be not just economic, but political as well. Whether the Castros admit it or not, Cuba is moving in a direction that fulfills U.S. hopes for a more market-oriented, open society on the island.

Obama’s reforms take advantage of this opening. The authorization of $500 non-family-related remittances, while paltry from a U.S. perspective, can provide a substantial boost for Cubans trying to open new businesses in a period of economic transition, particularly among black Cubans who are underrepresented in the exile community. More academic and research travel, meanwhile, will mean increased contact between U.S. academic communities and the new generation of students and faculty in Cuba, sparking lively debate at a time when the country needs it. In the last years of the Clinton administration, Cuban universities enjoyed contacts with more than 500 of their counterparts in the United States; the new rules will restore them. And the new directive makes it easier for religious organizations to sponsor travel to (and religious activities in) Cuba, a move that suggests the Obama administration has a sophisticated understanding of Cuban civil society: Cuban religious congregations are the largest and most relevant forces for liberalization on the island and are important interlocutors with the Cuban government.

Taken together, the actions answer the calls of the majority of the political opposition and civil society on the island for a new beginning in Washington’s relations with Havana, one that advances their mutual aims without interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs.

The policy change is also smart — and daring — domestic politics. The Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in November’s election put the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the hand of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congresswoman from Florida and a hard-liner on Cuba policy who once called for the assassination of Fidel Castro. Rubio, too, is a rising star in the Republican Party.

By bucking them, the White House has crossed a political Rubicon. The politically influential Cuban exile community in Florida will not forgive him or, likely, the Democratic Party. But the new generation of Cuban-Americans in the United States is likely to rally around a president who has finally put the national interest ahead of parochial ones to build bridges to the citizens of today’s Cuba, rather than clinging to a half-century-old vision of the island.

Now that Obama has made his move, Cuba’s government should rise to the occasion. It can show that it is equally serious by opening the island to investment by its emigrants or taking the long-overdue step of addressing travel rights for its own citizens, ending the infamous exit visa or “tarjeta blanca” — a Cold-War relic that prevents many average Cubans from traveling overseas — and the abusive passport charges that Cuban emigrants traveling back to their own country must pay. Cuba should adopt policies that are more open to academic exchanges, allowing individual applications by Cubans to undergraduate and graduate study in the United States.

The question now is whether the governments of Cuba and the United States can sustain a successful process of engagement and manage the volume of people-to-people contacts, which is bound to increase. In any case, Obama should continue opening up the United States to Cuban society on his own timetable, not on Raul Castro’s. Relations with Cuba have always been tricky, and Washington’s actions have not always produced reasonable responses from Havana. But Obama has wisely broken from the habits of prior presidents, risen above domestic politics, and put America’s greatest soft-power assets — its scholars, religious groups, and cultural figures — to work on bringing the two countries closer.

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