The next president — and I hope it’s Barack Obama — should at long last move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba. This means using his authority to lift financial and travel restrictions that make it so difficult for Americans to travel there; working with Congress to end economic sanctions imposed by the legislature; and removing Cuba from the so-called terrorist list on which it clearly doesn’t belong.
I don’t pretend this will be easy, but in small ways and large, it’s time to move into the 21st century with Cuba. The U.S. and Cuba both need to abandon the exhausted rhetoric — of the anti-Castro old guard here and the anti-American old guard in Havana. Both need to create the conditions for a relationship more fitting to the times. We need to put people ahead of politics, abolish the barriers between our nations and let Americans and Cubans make up their own minds about each other.
Certainly, the U.S. and Cuba have real differences — we don’t agree about economic freedoms, or about how elections should be conducted; we don’t agree about the Middle East, Iran or any number of other foreign policy issues. But it’s time we talked about these differences, as well as about the things we agree on. We can only do that through contact and engagement.
There is a long list of opportunities and grievances that require the attention of both countries. For the U.S., freedom for imprisoned U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross is at the top of the list. For Cuba, recognition of the many economic and social changes it has undergone over the past two years would be a welcome sign.
I have traveled to Cuba many times since the 1970s, and have seen significant changes, including the opening of more political space. This has happened in spite of our policy. Indeed, some of the steps taken by the Cuban government — releasing political prisoners, expanding the private sector, opening up room for churches and nongovernmental groups, relaxing exit visas to allow Cubans to travel abroad more easily — were the sort of measures President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called for with yet-unrealized suggestions of positive American response.