July 2, 2013

Is there a greater example of utter folly than America’s superannuated policy toward Cuba? During more than 50 years corrupted by covert actions, economic sabotage, travel bans and unending embargo, the United States managed to make Castro and Cuba an international symbol of proud independence. Intent on isolating Cuba, Washington has succeeded only in isolating itself in its own hemisphere. Intent on displacing Fidel Castro, the U.S. enmity only added to his nationalist credentials.

A recent visit reveals a Cuba that is already beginning a new, post-Castro era. That only highlights the inanity of the continuing U.S. embargo, a cruel relic of a Cold War era that is long gone.

Cuba is beginning a new experiment, driven by necessity, of trying to build its own version of market socialism in one country. Just as populist movements in the hemisphere looked to Castro and Cuba for inspiration, now Cuba is learning from its allies as it cautiously seeks to open up its economy. A former minister of the economy spoke of how Cuba is committed to fostering private coops and businesses, and is beginning a push to make more state enterprises make their own way.

This month, 100 state-run produce markets and 26 other establishments are scheduled to become private cooperatives. The government says many more establishments will follow, beginning in 2014, as an alternative to small and medium-size state businesses in retail and food services, transportation, light manufacturing and construction, among other sectors.

Despite the embargo, José Martí International Airport displays the new vitality. Hundreds of Cuban Americans fly into see relatives, bringing everything from flat-screen TVs to consumer basics. Since President Obama lifted restrictions on family visits in 2009, remittances and material support from Cuban Americans play a growing role in the microeconomy of the island.

Whereas in the 1990s, Havana was willing to permit only limited private enterprise as an emergency measure, government officials now speculate openly about aiming toward 50 percent of Cuba’s GDP in private hands within five years. Of course, an expanding small business sector won’t resolve some central issues facing the island: access to large-scale credit and investment and the need to boost exports and address anemic productivity, not to mention the demands of an aging population.

In Havana, there is more talk about Brazil’s investment in renovating Mariel Harbor than about Edward Snowden. Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht had to resist threats by Florida’s state government to cut off any state contracts if it invested in Cuba. This enormous deep-water port is designed to handle trade with the United States and beyond in a post-embargo world, if the embargo is ever ended.

Cuba’s official media remains sclerotic, though there are spirited debates in a few online outlets. But the government appears to understand that the explosion of social media will transform communications and politics, and however tentatively, realizes it has little choice but to change if it is to engage a younger generation.

It is long past time for the United States to end the embargo and influence Cuba, rather than threaten it. Ironically, as a result of a new Cuban migration law lifting more than 50 years of restrictions on the ability of its citizens to travel freely abroad, taking effect this year, Cubans are now freer to travel to the United States than Americans are to Cuba. The president can’t end the travel ban without Congressional approval, but as Peter Kornbluhexplained in a recent piece in The Nation, he can take several steps that would transform our policy.

Obama should start by removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of nations that support terrorism, terminating the economic and commercial sanctions that come with that designation. The Treasury could stop fining international banks for doing business with Cuba, a practice that impedes the country’s slow opening to private enterprise. At the same time, the president could expand licensing for travel to Cuba, making it easier for entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors and others to travel and explore commercial possibilities. The Cold War “Cuban Democracy and Contingency Planning Program,” designed for “regime change,” should be reconfigured to a people-to-people exchange program that would actually have some influence.

Finally, as a prelude to broader bilateral negotiations on a range of issues, Obama could act directly to remove an open sore in U.S.-Cuban relations. The president could commute the sentences of the so-called Cuban Five, counterterrorism agents arrested in Florida in 1998 and convicted on espionage charges, four of whom are still imprisoned. At the same time, the Cubans could free Alan Gross, who was arrested when he was sent to Cuba by USAID on a quasi-covert mission to supply Jewish groups with satellite connections to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter has offered to facilitate these sensible steps.

The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union is no more. The United States sustains the largest trade deficit in the history of the world with China’s communists. And yet the embargo and enmity towards Cuba continue. The intelligence agencies and the embittered and aging Cuban refugees may never acknowledge the world as it is. But it is long past time for the United States to turn to a policy that will engage Cuba rather than isolate ourselves.

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