Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Castro’s Retirement Offers Opportunity for Change -- in US Policy

Blinded by ideology and hobbled by Miami’s special interest politics and donations, the Bush Administration will remain irrelevant to the transition in Cuba dramatized by Fidel Castro’s retirement. It will also miss an opportunity to begin to rebuild America’s reputation in the world.

The real question is whether the Democratic Congress or candidates for President can do any better.

Serious change is underway in Cuba. International journalists have reported a country frankly examining its economic and social problems. The voices of Cubans themselves have been heard in meetings around the country, and in articles and interviews published on the internet. We received an unmediated view of the process from Cuba’s unprecedented release on-line of a two hour meeting where university students challenged Ricardo Alarcon, head of the National Assembly.

President Bush’s advocacy of regime change, instability and disloyalty by the Cuban military and police last October was either one more instance of pandering to the dreams of exiles in Miami or intended to undermine the process of internal reform by heightening Cuban anxieties about US intentions.

Since taking control of Congress, Democratic leaders have offered no challenge to the Administration, despite previous support for ending travel restrictions.

Of the leading Presidential candidates, McCain and Huckabee strive to sound harder line than Bush. Clinton only differs with him on the question of emergency visits by Cuban Americans. Obama offers the beginning of change, supporting unrestricted Cuban American family travel and remittances. Unlike the others, he is prepared to negotiate with Raul Castro without preconditions.

A minimal US response to Fidel Castro’s retirement is reinstatement of the pre 2004 travel regulations of Bill Clinton and George Bush which permitted annual and emergency visits by Cuban Americans. More importantly, it allowed non-tourist purposeful travel by world affairs councils, professional organizations, museums, religious and humanitarian groups, short term study programs, etc.

A more serious step would be to end all travel restrictions so any American could personally evaluate and interact with the transition taking place in Cuba. Only by honoring our own values of freedom, can we actually know what is taking place and provide a supportive atmosphere for Cuban reformers.

An additional benefit will be to our international reputation. Traditional allies in this hemisphere and western Europe see US policy toward Cuba as counterproductive if not obsessed and anachronistic. World opinion was signaled for the sixteenth year when the UN General Assembly condemned our unilateral embargo of Cuba by 184 to 4.

The American people know what needs to happen. Polls show that two-thirds want an end to travel restrictions and normalization of relations. It’s time for our leaders to catch up.

[The author traveled to Cuba in 1971 and annually during the past decade. He founded and heads the Fund for Reconciliation and Development which was actively involved in the normalization of US relations with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.]

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