Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Obama bringing sense to U.S.-Cuba policy

By DeWayne Wickham

It was late in the day on the Friday before the nation’s capital shutdown for the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday that the White House signaled a long awaited change in this country’s Cuba policy that has to have a lot of people cheering on both sides of the Florida Straits.

President Obama ordered administration officials “to take a series of steps to continue efforts to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country’s future,” the White House press release declared.

The steps, which relax restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba, moves this nation closer to a rational foreign policy towards the communist state, which for nearly half a century a succession of American governments have tried to topple.

Cuba is the last Cold War battleground where the United States is not just at loggerheads with an old Soviet client state but is actively trying to undermine the government. This nation's with regime change in Havana has been fueled more by domestic politics (pandering for votes among anti-Castro Cubans in South Florida) than a well-reasoned foreign policy.

Obama’s decision to relax the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba is an act of political courage and good sense. Under the new rules it will be easier for academics, students, religious organizations and journalists to travel to Cuba. Also, when this change takes effect, any American can send up to $2,000 a year to someone in Cuba as long as they are not a senior member of the Cuban government or Communist Party.

Under the old rules - and this won't change - Cuban Americans had unlimited freedom to travel to Cuba and send money to people in the Caribbean island nation that’s just 90 miles off the tip of Florida. Everyone else in this country was prohibited from sending money to Cuba and severely restricted from visiting that country.

The travel ban, its supporters have long argued, is necessary to keep dollars out of the coffers of the Castro regime. That’s laughable given the exception made for Cuban Americans. But what the ban effectively has done is reward the families of the white Cubans who disproportionately immigrate to the United States – and punish the families of black Cubans who have largely remained in Cuba – Tomás Fernandez Robaina, a senior researcher at Cuba’s national library and cultural historian, told me. Without relatives in this country to send them money black families in Cuba have been hardest hit by Cuba’s economic problems, he said.

Obama’s new policy, which allows anyone in this country to legally send money to almost anyone in Cuba, makes it possible for financial aid to find its way into the homes of many more black Cubans than before. And that’s a good thing.

The president understands that, as with Vietnam and China, American engagement – open travel and trade – is the best way to usher in democratic change to Cuba. Ironically, there is little support in Cuba for the trade embargo and travel ban that have defined America’s relationship with Cuba for almost five decades.

The vast majority of Cubans that I’ve met during my many reporting trips to Cuba – including those who oppose the Castro regime – dislike the travel ban and trade embargo. Keeping Cuba sealed off from the American people and U.S. businesses does little to alter the politics of that nation. What it does do is keep Cuba and the United States locked into a foolish Cold War standoff.

Wisely, albeit slowly, Barack Obama is rolling back this bad policy.

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