Sunday, November 23, 2008

Open travel, remittances best course for Cuba

Posted on Thursday, 11.20.08
Open travel, remittances best course for Cuba

On Jan. 1, 2009, the Cuban Revolution marks its 50th anniversary. Three
weeks later, Barack Obama will step into the Oval Office as the 11th
U.S. president to face a Castro-led government in Havana.

Several plates full of problems await the new administration. Still,
President Obama should quickly implement what he promised in Miami on
May 23: ''I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and
remittances to the island.'' Simply reversing the shameful restrictions
of 2004 won't do. A bold move that puts Havana on the spot is in order.

Lifting all restrictions on family travel and remittances may seem like
small potatoes. Yet, given where we are now, it could turn out to be a
game changer. In 1979, the visits of 100,000 Cuban Americans helped
trigger one of the most difficult domestic challenges that Havana has
ever faced, the Mariel exodus. Today Cuban society is considerably more
fragile. Merely rescinding the 2004 restrictions would suit the regime
just fine.

The Cuba Wars, by Daniel P. Erikson, my colleague at the Inter-American
Dialogue, has appeared in time for the coming rounds on U.S. Cuba
policy. It is an engaging read of U.S.-Cuban relations under President
George W. Bush. His treatment of Cuban Americans is especially fair and
noteworthy, whether it be the Elián González case, the presidential
recount in 2000 or the community's growing diversity. The Cuba Wars,
moreover, puts it all in the context of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11.

Erikson's review of how the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
came about in 2003-2004 is particularly well done. The Iraq war stirred
a hornet's nest in the community. Why couldn't the United States do the
same in Cuba?

In August 2003, 13 Republican state legislators -- including 10 Cuban
Americans -- wrote Bush a letter expressing ''disappointment and
outrage'' about his Cuba policy and suggesting that stalwart support for
the Republican Party in Cuban Miami might be in peril. Two months later,
the Commission was born. It eventually issued a 500-page, detailed tome
meant to hasten the Cuban transition and placate the concerns expressed
in the August letter. With an eye toward the November 2004 elections,
the administration directed the aforementioned restrictions.

The Cuba Wars predicted that Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart would retain
their congressional seats. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen did as well, but hers was
mostly a foregone conclusion. The Republican victory may or may not
indicate that Cuban Americans in their districts support current policy.
Cuba, for once, was not the main issue in contention; the economy was.

What else might the election results show? An exit poll conducted by
Bendixen & Associates in Miami-Dade County with nearly 12,000 voters
(about 3,900 Cuban Americans) helps us look beyond the winners and
losers. While John McCain took 65 percent of their votes, Obama won the
county 58-42 and Florida 51-48. Two trends in the Cuban-American
electorate stand to favor the Democratic Party in the longer term.

• Sixty-one percent of those who are U.S.-born and 65 percent in the
18-29 group preferred Obama.

• Cubans who arrived in the 1990s were split 49-51 percent between Obama
and McCain while those arriving in the 2000s broke 58 percent for the

Let's not forget as well that, in the 2007 Florida International
University Cuba poll, 55 percent of Cuban-American respondents agreed
with unrestricted freedom to travel to the island, while 42 percent
opposed the embargo outright.

Elections have consequences, and the case for changing U.S. policy on
Cuba would have benefited immensely from one of the Cuban-American
challengers winning. At the same time, Obama won the demographic groups
that will only keep on growing as well as a total vote share comparable
to Bill Clinton's in 1996, which helped him win Florida.

I hope that Obama allows unrestricted family travel and remittances to
Cuba. It's not only right for humanitarian reasons but could also
capitalize Democratic gains among recent arrivals and younger, U.S.-born
Cuban Americans.

Confrontation simply hasn't worked. Tightening the embargo after the
Cold War was supposed to do the trick while more recent policies aimed
to hasten the transition. Perhaps we've been barking up the wrong tree.
Opening up may be the real hard line.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida
International University.

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