President Obama took a step today to normalize relations with Cuba, but it was a very small step and there's a strong case to be made that he should go much farther.
No one can doubt that Cuba remains a despotic, tyrannical regime despite how it's portrayed in Michael Moore's movies. But it's just as true that the decades old US embargo of the island nation has done nothing to democratize America's neighbor to the south. Meanwhile, it's provided the Communist regime with a continued explanation for why its economic policies have failed and a rallying cry for its people to loathe the American government.
The president's new initiative is designed to ease travel restrictions, allow for a free exchange of gifts, and open up some telecommunications avenues with Cuba. Most of the provisions, however, only apply to Cuban Americans and they essentially return things to 1982 when Cuban Americans were free to travel back and forth between the two countries.
Since 2004, Cuban Americans, who, according to polls, have grown more critical of the embargo, have been allowed to visit the island once every three years. Every three months, they were allowed to send $300 to relatives there. With Obama's action, both of those restrictions have been lifted.
Cuban-Americans enjoyed unlimited travel to Cuba only from 1977 to 1982. Since then, Democratic and Republican presidencies have imposed travel restrictions. This hasn't gotten them, or the rest of us, anywhere.
Why? For one thing, it's a unilateral embargo. While we continue to crack down on Cuba and impose our will as best we can on corporations that do business with the United States, Havana remains a city with Virgin Airlines service, Chinese oil workers and Canadian tourists. We've shut the door on Cuba but the rest of the world hasn't. Every couple of years, Cuba asks the United Nations for a vote lifting the embargo. What happens? We usually end up with a couple of superpowers like Palau and the Marshall Islands standing with us. In 2006, the vote was 183 to 4. The embargo makes us look like an arrogant bully.
Second, lifting the trade and travel restrictions on Cuba would allow Americans to really influence the island nation. It's unlikely that Cubans would rise up and overthrow the Castro brothers rule, but American capitalism is a liberating force and it can only help fortify the country's repressed entrepreneurial culture. Besides, during an American recession, opening doors to Cuba would be like a jobs program for South Florida. Cuba wouldn't allow a return to the pre-1959 Batista era of American corporations taking over the island's tourism industry, but there's surely going to be a huge influx of American tourists, not to mention business and cultural exchanges.
Our policy toward Cuba hasn't worked. Obama's right to try something new and early reaction is positive. The US Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the embargo altogether, today supported Obama's move.
But if this step isn't followed by more, then we're going to continue in the same miserable position: fixated on a small, repressive island off our coast, doing nothing to democratize it and everything to give its regime the excuse it needs to survive.VisitÃÂ Portfolio.comÃÂ for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers.ÃÂ Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.