Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    End the U.S. Embargo on Cuba

    End the U.S. Embargo on Cuba

    Scanning a map of the world must give President Obama a sinking feeling
    as he contemplates the dismal state of troubled bilateral relationships
    his administration has sought to turn around. He would be smart to take
    a hard look at Cuba, where a major policy shift could yield a
    significant foreign policy success.

    For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the
    United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible
    to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless
    embargo. The Castro regime has long blamed the embargo for its
    shortcomings, and has kept ordinary Cubans largely cut off from the
    world. Mr. Obama should seize this opportunity to end a long era of
    enmity and help a population that has suffered enormously since
    Washington ended diplomatic relations in 1961, two years after Fidel
    Castro assumed power.

    In recent years, a devastated economy has forced Cuba to make reforms —
    a process that has gained urgency with the economic crisis in Venezuela,
    which gives Cuba heavily subsidized oil. Officials in Havana, fearing
    that Venezuela could cut its aid, have taken significant steps to
    liberalize and diversify the island’s tightly controlled economy.

    They have begun allowing citizens to take private-sector jobs and own
    property. This spring, Cuba’s National Assembly passed a law to
    encourage foreign investment in the country. With Brazilian capital,
    Cuba is building a seaport, a major project that will be economically
    viable only if American sanctions are lifted. And in April, Cuban
    diplomats began negotiating a cooperation agreement with the European
    Union. They have shown up at the initial meetings prepared, eager and
    mindful that the Europeans will insist on greater reforms and freedoms.

    The authoritarian government still harasses and detains dissidents. It
    has yet to explain the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of
    the political activist Oswaldo Payá. But in recent years officials have
    released political prisoners who had been held for years. Travel
    restrictions were relaxed last year, enabling prominent dissidents to
    travel abroad. There is slightly more tolerance for criticism of the
    leadership, though many fear speaking openly and demanding greater rights.

    The pace of reforms has been slow and there has been backsliding. Still,
    these changes show Cuba is positioning itself for a post-embargo era.
    The government has said it would welcome renewed diplomatic relations
    with the United States and would not set preconditions.

    As a first step, the Obama administration should remove Cuba from the
    State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorist organizations,
    which includes Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuba was put on the list in 1982
    for backing terrorist groups in Latin America, which it no longer does.
    American officials recognize that Havana is playing a constructive role
    in the conflict in Colombia by hosting peace talks between the
    government and guerrilla leaders.

    Starting in 1961, Washington has imposed sanctions in an effort to oust
    the Castro regime. Over the decades, it became clear to many American
    policy makers that the embargo was an utter failure. But any proposal to
    end the embargo angered Cuban-American voters, a constituency that has
    had an outsize role in national elections.

    The generation that adamantly supports the embargo is dying off. Younger
    Cuban-Americans hold starkly different views, having come to see the
    sanctions as more damaging than helpful. A recent poll found that a
    slight majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami now oppose the embargo. A
    significant majority of them favor restoring diplomatic ties, mirroring
    the views of other Americans.

    The Obama administration in 2009 took important steps to ease the
    embargo, a patchwork of laws and policies, making it easier for Cubans
    in the United States to send remittances to relatives in Cuba and
    authorizing more Cuban-Americans to travel there. And it has paved the
    way for initiatives to expand Internet access and cellphone coverage on
    the island.

    Share your thoughts. We’re especially interested in hearing thoughts and
    personal experiences from the Cuban community.
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    Fully ending the embargo will require Congress’s approval. But there is
    much more the White House could do on its own. For instance, it could
    lift caps on remittances, allow Americans to finance private Cuban
    businesses and expand opportunities for travel to the island.

    It could also help American companies that are interested in developing
    the island’s telecommunications network but remain wary of the legal and
    political risks. Failing to engage with Cuba now will likely cede this
    market to competitors. The presidents of China and Russia traveled to
    Cuba in separate visits in July, and both leaders pledged to expand ties.

    Cuba and the United States already have diplomatic missions, called
    interests sections, that operate much like embassies. However, under the
    current arrangement, American diplomats have few opportunities to travel
    outside the capital to engage with ordinary Cubans, and their access to
    the Cuban government is very limited.

    Restoring diplomatic ties, which the White House can do without
    congressional approval, would allow the United States to expand and
    deepen cooperation in areas where the two nations already manage to work
    collaboratively — like managing migration flows, maritime patrolling and
    oil rig safety. It would better position Washington to press the Cubans
    on democratic reforms, and could stem a new wave of migration to the
    United States driven by hopelessness.

    Closer ties could also bring a breakthrough on the case of an American
    development contractor, Alan Gross, who has been unjustly imprisoned by
    Cuba for nearly five years. More broadly, it would create opportunities
    to empower ordinary Cubans, gradually eroding the government’s ability
    to control their lives.

    In April, Western Hemisphere heads of state will meet in Panama City for
    the seventh Summit of the Americas. Latin American governments insisted
    that Cuba, the Caribbean’s most populous island and one of the most
    educated societies in the hemisphere, be invited, breaking with its
    traditional exclusion at the insistence of Washington.

    Given the many crises around the world, the White House may want to
    avoid a major shift in Cuba policy. Yet engaging with Cuba and starting
    to unlock the potential of its citizens could end up being among the
    administration’s most consequential foreign-policy legacies.

    Normalizing relations with Havana would improve Washington’s
    relationships with governments in Latin America, and resolve an irritant
    that has stymied initiatives in the hemisphere. The Obama administration
    is leery of Cuba’s presence at the meeting and Mr. Obama has not
    committed to attending. He must — and he should see it as an opportunity
    to make history.

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