Commentary: Time to put Castro on the spot

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 Elian Gonzalez 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 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 Democrat.

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 Perez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, a professor at Florida International University and a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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