Now really is the time to change our stance towards Cuba--but will we do anything about it? Probably not

Normally known for his grandiose statements and public flourishes, two weeks ago Fidel Castro made a momentous announcement relatively quietly. In a letter read on state media, Fidel, who in the summer of 2006 had handed caretaker power to his brother Raul while battling a serious (and still not fully identified) illness, wrote that “my basic duty is not to cling to office, and even less to obstruct the path of younger people.” For many longtime Cuba-watchers, this was Fidel’s final admission that he would never return to power. “This is it. This is really historic,” Cuba expert Brian Latell told The Washington Post.

But even after Fidel’s statement, American policy towards Cuba remains unchanged. On December 18, the White House blandly declared, “We’re just continuing to work for democracy on the island.”(The administration previously said it would not work with Raul.) And realists still believe that, in the run-up to a presidential election where, once again, Florida could be a battleground state, there is no likelihood that policy will change in 2008--or, for that matter, in 2009 or 2010 or beyond. Yet despite the continuing media coverage of Cuban-Americans’ political influence, there are real reasons why the U.S. should change its Cuba policy now. And there are real signs that, unlike in the past, Miami Cubans just might be willing to live with a new, more open approach to the island.

For decades, many American politicians and officials resigned themselves to a failed Cuba policy. They understood that it made no sense to continue isolating the island even as Washington pursued close relations with communist nations, authoritarian states, and former enemies--but, hey, they had Cuban-American voters to pacify. President Clinton, for his part, allowed some opening toward the island, permitting greater trade in goods and more people-to-people exchanges. But President Bush, indebted to Miami voters after a 2000 election in which Cuban-Americans helped deliver him the presidency, reversed even this limited détente, cracking down on remittances to the island, travel, and family visits, and appointing a coordinator to map out a supposed transition to democracy on the island. Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, didn’t do much at all to oppose Bush’s stricter Cuba policies.

In the past two years, though, it has become increasingly obvious that sanctions on Cuba cannot be written off as an absurd but costless policy. As a recent report by the Government Accountability Office revealed, U.S. government agencies have been distracted from essential tasks like combating terrorism by having to spend time trying to find Americans who are illegally traveling to Cuba. As The New York Times reported, according to the GAO, the focus on Cuba has “strained Customs and Border Protection’s capacity to carry out its primary mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens from entering the country at Miami International Airport.” The report also found the emphasis on Cuba has distracted the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is responsible for monitoring transactions with nations the United States sanctions, including more dangerous states like Iran. Meanwhile, as in Iran, America’s hard-line policy actually has undermined the cause of some Cuban reformers--men and women like Oswaldo Payá who want to bring change to Cuba and who have been tarred by Havana as toadies of Washington. Recognizing this problem, ­Cuban dissidents actually have called on the White House to relax its policy.

Worse, while in the 1990s Cuba had few other friends (having lost its Soviet patrons), today it has become a beachhead for two major American competitors. Havana’s deep and cozy relationship with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is well known--Venezuela gives Cuba some 100,000 barrels of heavily subsidized oil each day.

But Cuba has also grown increasingly close with China, which has upped its aid to Havana and has hosted Raul Castro numerous times. Witnessing China’s staggering growth, Raul, though clearly no democrat, allegedly has expressed a desire to promote some Chinese-style economic reforms in Cuba. If the U.S. refuses any relations with Cuba under a Raul leadership, Beijing will only tighten its links to the island and will probably tap the oil fields off Cuba’s coast--potentially fertile ground for American energy firms.

Continuing the isolation of Cuba doesn’t even make political sense in America. With new generations of Cuban-Americans growing up removed from the battles of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Miami community, once thought of as a monolithic bloc, has become more open to the idea of reconciliation with Cuba. As revealed by one poll by the William C. Velazquez Institute, a Latino polling group, most Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County think the residents of Cuba “should decide when and how the political system in Cuba should be changed.” Many Cuban-Americans simply aren’t as interested in Cuba as they used to be; the poll found that a majority of Cuban-Americans think “improving the quality of life in South Florida is more important than waiting to change the Cuban government.” Another study, by the polling firm Bendixen and Associates, showed that over 70 percent of Cuban-Americans want Washington to negotiate with the post-Fidel government in Cuba if it is willing to cooperate.

Sensing this opinion shift, many prominent Cuban-Americans have been calling for “conditional engagement” with the island that would include more direct American travel to Cuba, and more American investment--all on the condition that the Cuban government increase its respect for workers’ rights, creates an independent judiciary, and allows its people greater freedom to start businesses. Even some Republican congresspeople, once loath to contemplate rapprochement with Cuba, have changed their tune: At a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley suggested the U.S. reconsider its bilateral relations with the island.

Unfortunately, most of the leading presidential candidates don’t seem to see this future. Though Barack Obama supports changing the relationship with Cuba, Hillary Clinton, who previously said she wanted to continue the economic embargo, has said that she will continue Bush’s tough policies. Rudy Giuliani, John Edwards, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain have all indicated they would continue the current policy. And as Steve Clemons notes, Mike Huckabee, who backed greater engagement with Cuba when he was governor of Arkansas, now says he wants to put more pressure on Havana than the Bush administration did. So, even as Cuba and the world changes, the candidates seem stuck in the past, keeping a shrinking number of Cuban-American voters happy and leaving the rest of us less safe.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for
The New Republic.

By Joshua Kurlantzick