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Ending The Cuban Test Drive

facade of the National Hotel of Cuba rising among trees against a blue sky
National Hotel of Cuba. Photo by Ulbrecht Hopper

When you shop for a new vehicle, a dealer will gladly let you take your model of choice for a little spin. But you don’t get to keep driving until the wheels fall off.

The wheels have long since come off America’s policy toward communist Cuba. President Dwight D. Eisenhower banned most exports to the nearby island nation in October 1960, and broke diplomatic relations with Havana three months later. A month after taking office, Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, broadened the embargo to a near-total cutoff of trade and other contacts. Relations have been severed and trade has been mostly shut off (except for periods of limited loosening) ever since.

All of this was supposed to either prompt the government of Fidel Castro (and his brother and eventual successor, Raul Castro) to either liberalize their repressive regime, or to prompt Cubans to install new leaders. Neither has happened. More than half a century later, Raul Castro still leads the Cuban government, the United States stands alone in its method of dealing with Cuba, and our Cuba policy is starkly inconsistent with the ways in which we treat comparable regimes.

We have diplomatic relations with nearly all the world’s remaining communist governments (except beyond-the-pale North Korea), notably including Vietnam, with whom we fought a war that resulted in scars that are still pretty raw. China’s government is at least as repressive as Cuba’s, and it is far more aggressive in its territorial claims against smaller neighbors. Yet not only do we have diplomatic relations with Beijing, we have annual trade of more than a half-trillion dollars.

Though it would be grossly ill-advised, I can legally vacation on my U.S. passport in Syria, whose President Bashar Assad is dropping barrel bombs on civilians. The Castros and their cronies have done a lot of nasty things, but they have not resorted to barrel bombs. Yet I cannot travel to Cuba unless I use journalism, or cultural or religious exchange, as a cover story. Just wanting to sample the beaches is not reason enough.

Our policy toward Cuba long ago stopped being reasonable or practical; it is purely political, driven by the fierce opposition of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans to any concessions toward the regime Fidel installed.

Their feelings are completely understandable, even if I believe the policy they espouse is wrong. My home in Florida brings me into frequent contact with the region’s vast Cuban emigrant population. Some arrived in the first wave of Castro refugees. Some are the children and grandchildren of those early migrants. Some came later. They not only built homes and lives in this country; they established businesses, became community leaders, engaged in politics and have fought tirelessly for freedom in their former country, all while doing whatever they could to provide for relatives and friends left behind. They are my friends and neighbors, and I respect them deeply. My exposure to their sentiment goes all the way back to my childhood in the Bronx, where a friendly boy on my street who came to this country as a baby had a pennant in his room that read, “Cuando Cuba Libre Regresamos.” When Cuba is free, we will return.

Our policy of trade and diplomatic isolation, which has not succeeded in changing Cuba’s government after 54 years, is not going to start producing results now. Altering that policy is not a reward to the Castro government. It is a challenge to the Havana regime, because there are things we could do absent an embargo that stand a significantly better chance of promoting change in Cuba. In announcing last week that he is opening diplomatic exchanges with Havana, and in calling on Congress to reconsider the embargo, President Obama rightly recognizes this. His Republican opponents (with whom I agree much more often than not) are prisoners of political reflex and intellectual habit. They need to think with their strategic heads and not with their political hearts.

Suppose we open an embassy in Havana and a consulate in Santiago de Cuba, and we hand out visas to pretty much every Cuban who wants one. Some would be legitimately entitled to claim asylum if they came to the United States, while others could be allowed to stay here on economic or humanitarian grounds (such as family unification). Of course, the Cuban government won’t appreciate the sight of its population heading for the nearest docks and jetways; it will impose restrictions on travel (beyond the fact that most Cubans are too poor to come here anyway). But you can’t build a wall around an island, and we would have leverage to moderate Cuban restrictions. We might allow, say, 10 special tourist visas for Americans to visit Cuba for every Cuban who is allowed to visit the United States.

Havana needs those tourists. It already gets quite a few from places like Canada, Germany, England and France, but you can’t beat the United States for combined proximity and market size. In the years before the Castros took over, Americans could load their cars onto ships in Florida and travel directly to Cuba.

If and when American tourists return, they are going to expect fast 3G or 4G service for their cell phones and tablets. I suspect more than a few of those devices are going to be “forgotten” in Cuba, where they can provide a window to the outside world for ordinary citizens, whose Internet use is closely restricted. American friends and relatives can continue paying the mobile bills.

The Iron Curtain did not collapse in Europe because Westerners turned their back on residents of repressive communist regimes. The West kept the doors open; it was the East that resorted to walls, fences and border guards who had shoot-to-kill orders. We have seen what works, and what doesn’t work, to promote openness and freedom in closed societies.

The policy we have tested in Cuba does not suit our needs. Let’s give it up and find a better model.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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