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    Time for an evolution in U.S. policy on Cuba

    Time for an evolution in U.S. policy on Cuba
    By Katrina vanden Heuvel, Tuesday, June 10, 2:00 PM

    The sad irony of U.S.-Cuban relations is that Cuba, under the leadership
    of 83-year-old Raúl Castro, is changing rapidly, and the United States,
    despite President Obama’s promises of a “new beginning,” remains largely
    frozen in a self-destructive Cold War policy.

    The fifty-plus year-old embargo of Cuba continues. The administration
    still lists Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The United States
    continues to sponsor covert activities — this time a U.S. Agency for
    International Development attempt to generate “smart mobs” through a
    secret text-messaging program — to help destabilize the regime. Ten
    presidents after the embargo began, U.S. policy remains dedicated to folly.

    Meanwhile the world, the hemisphere and Cuba have changed. If anything,
    the embargo isolates the United States, not Cuba. Washington’s
    relationship with the region is deteriorating, corroded by its policy
    toward Cuba. With few exceptions, the left-leaning governments that
    govern across Latin America have normal relations with Cuba and scorn
    the U.S. attempt to isolate the little island. At the last Summit of the
    Americas in 2012, the presidents of Brazil and of Colombia, one of the
    few remaining U.S. allies, joined several other countries in announcing
    they would skip the next summit in 2015 if Cuba is not invited. And well
    they should, as the summits become increasingly irrelevant, with
    regional trading and political ties developing with the United States,
    not Cuba, on the sidelines.

    My recent trip to Cuba, as part of the nation’s first educational
    exchange trip to that country, reaffirmed what Josefina Vidal, head of
    the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, told our
    delegation in a wide ranging 90-minute conversation: “The U.S. is facing
    the risk of becoming irrelevant in the future of Cuba.”

    The conservative Republican head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom
    Donahue, while visiting Cuba last month, reiterated the chamber’s call
    to lifting the embargo in his speech at the University of Havana.
    Donahue understands that the major victims of the U.S. blockade are U.S.
    businesses.

    Cuba has just passed a new law facilitating foreign investment. A new
    rush is on. A Brazilian firm captured the major project of modernizing
    the port at Mariel. A Chinese company is building 34 wind turbines. And
    another Chinese company sells the new cars that are starting to be seen
    on the streets. A British developer has just initialed a deal to build a
    “luxury golf resort.” The European Union has opened a formal dialogue
    with Cuba on trade, investment and human rights.

    The pace of change in Cuba is accelerating — and is visible on the
    ground. Paladares (private restaurants), tapas bars and even night clubs
    are sprouting up in private homes. When Obama rightly eased restrictions
    on the travel and remittances of Cuban Americans, visitors bearing gifts
    flooded the island.

    Remarkable changes in sex education and official attitudes are apparent,
    with the state going from imprisoning homosexuals to launching campaigns
    against sexual violence, considering legalizing same-sex marriage,
    subsidizing sex-change operations and banning discrimination based on
    sexuality at the workplace. Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, the
    charismatic head of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, has
    become a renowned figure both in Cuba and across the world for her work
    in this area. Despite her government’s restrictions on political speech,
    Castro is an outspoken advocate for more open sexual discourse. When we
    met with her at the center, she expressed frustration at continuing
    official resistance to legalizing gay marriage and spoke of herself as a
    fighter — fighting for a new way of thinking about sexuality and
    supported by a growing Cuban grassroots network of activists.

    Of course, Cuba faces severe challenges. The regime still keeps a heavy
    hand on the press and social media and, as I learned in conversations
    with a leading Cuban journalist, the recent Twitter scandal has made
    reform-minded Cuban journalists’ fight to modernize the country’s
    social-media infrastructure more difficult. Human rights are still
    constricted. The regime knows it has to change but hopes to maintain
    core advances (particularly in health care and education) that are the
    signatures of the revolution.

    With foreign investment, expanding private enterprises and increasing
    tourism comes greater inequality and increasing tension. Yet, as veteran
    journalist Marc Frank explains in his fascinating new book, “Cuban
    Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana,” there is a “grey zone” — a
    significant segment of Cubans whom Castro is trying to win over with his
    efforts to modernize the economy.

    Amidst all of these changes, the United States is fighting yesterday’s
    war. At present, Cubans are freer to travel to the United States than
    Americans are to go to Cuba. What fears or fantasies support that idiocy?

    U.S. policy is frozen in large part because bureaucratic inertia is
    reinforced by the hold anti-Castro zealots have on our policy — most
    notably Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who represents Miami’s Little
    Havana neighborhood, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert
    Menendez (D-N.J.). But these zealots are growing ever more isolated.
    Recently, nearly four dozen former government officials, diplomats,
    retired military officers, wealthy Cuban emigres and business leaders
    warned in an open letter to the president that the United States is
    “increasingly isolated internationally in its Cuba policy,” and called
    on the administration to act on its own to ease travel for all Americans
    and allow increased trade and financial exchanges. Even Hillary Clinton
    — who has a hawkish track record on Cuba — claims in her new book that
    she urged Obama to ease or lift the embargo, although she seems content
    with the minor reforms that were made

    Obama has said he needn’t wait for the Congress, he has a “phone and
    pen” to take executive actions. He could act now to negotiate with the
    Cubans the long-overdue trade of the Cuban Five (now three) jailed for
    espionage in the United States for USAID contractor Alan Gross, jailed
    in Cuba nearly five years ago for distributing communications equipment
    to Jewish groups. Obama could open up exchanges and travel for all
    Americans, while loosening financial restrictions.

    In discussions with our delegation, former Cuban foreign minister
    Ricardo Alarcon noted that the fact the White House is prepared to
    negotiate with the Taliban but not its neighbor raises questions about
    how “rational” U.S. policy is. Sustaining a policy that has failed for
    over 50 years and 10 presidents, an embargo that has isolated the United
    States in its own hemisphere, a blockade that damages U.S. businesses
    and restrictions that constrict the rights of Americans — no, that
    doesn’t sound rational.

    The experts suggest there is a window of time for the president to act —
    after the midterm elections and before the middle of 2015. The promised
    “new beginning” would be better late than never.

    Source: Katrina vanden Heuvel: U.S. policy toward Cuba is frozen in the
    past – The Washington Post –
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/katrina-vanden-heuvel-us-policy-toward-cuba-is-frozen-in-the-past/2014/06/09/f9606fd0-f017-11e3-9ebc-2ee6f81ed217_story.html