"The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," Fidel Castro told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in a rare 2010 interview. Goldberg had asked whether Castro still sought to export his communist system to a Latin America that -- though Goldberg had the tact not to point this out -- had largely rejected it. "He wasn't rejecting the ideas of the Revolution," Julie Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations explained. "I took it to be an acknowledgment that under 'the Cuban model' the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country."
It was also an acknowledgement of something that American policymakers from former president Bill Clinton to Reagan-era secretary of state George Schultz have suggested as well: The U.S. embargo on Cuba, like the Cuban communist system, is in many ways a relic of a bygone era. But both seemed to come down a very small bit today, bringing this Cold War skirmish another step closer to the 21st century.
The Cuban government has announced it will lift the onerous, expensive and often prohibitive restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens. It's impossible to say for sure why Havana has taken down this piece of the political-economic wall separating Cuba from the rest of the world, but it seems like the reasons may be economic. There are more than 1 million ethnic Cubans living in the United States, and easing restrictions could boost remittances back home. Temporary economic migrants are also more likely to leave family members in Cuba, and thus to send money back.
Another economic factor is brain drain: Easier visas mean Cubans are more likely to choose legal travel back-and-forth from the United States and less likely to flee permanently. The government announcement seemed to hint at this, in typical communist propaganda style: "Measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful," it read. The economic case for normalization seems to be overcoming the political case for isolation.
How much of a difference will the change actually make? It's tough to say. As the Atlantic Wire pointed out, President Obama eased restrictions on American visits to Cuba last year, but it seems to have had little actual effect. If nothing else, the symbolism of Cuba's policy change -- and on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost led to a U.S. invasion of the island -- is tough to deny.
The half-century hard-line positions that have dominated Washington and Havana are eroding. As more Cuban economic immigrants come into the United States, and start to outnumber the Cuban political refugees that have long dominated the community, the New American Foundation's Anya French has predicted that they may pressure both countries to step even closer toward normalization. It might be a slow process, but it only seems to be moving in one direction.