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Time for America to Be Relevant in Cuba

By Charles B. Rangel and Jeff Flake
Saturday, April 14, 2007

Several months after Cuba's revolutionary leader fell ill and left public view, Havana has clearly moved into the post-Fidel Castro era. Whether Washington will follow suit is another matter altogether.

Recently the Bush administration has shown new flexibility in foreign policy. Consider: a nuclear deal with North Korea and talks aimed at normalized relations, contact with Syria and Iran, and a stronger push for Israel-Palestine negotiations.

What about Cuba?

Raúl Castro, Cuba's interim president and designated successor, has twice called for U.S.-Cuba negotiations. This offer deserves a positive response. Potentially, we could profit by negotiating increased cooperation on drug interdiction and migration policy, the return of American fugitives residing in Cuba, and environmental protections as Cuba explores for oil in waters near our own.

But more than deals with Cuba, we need a new deal with ourselves on Cuba policy.

For too long, our approach has been guided by electoral considerations. Ever-tightening sanctions have won votes in Florida for both Republicans and Democrats. But these sanctions have done nothing to promote change in Cuba, and they have kept American strengths -- diplomacy and contact with American society -- squarely on the sidelines.

Today, Cuba may be on the cusp of change, and we need to take a fresh look. Raúl Castro, at age 75, is a committed socialist. He has convicted some pro-democracy activists, released others from jail and continued harassment of dissidents. He has also allowed a debate over past repression to open up in Cuba's cultural sector.

He acknowledges that his role is transitional, a bridge to Cuba's next generation, and his greatest interest is to set the stage for socialism's long-term survival.

It is a safe bet that he will seek to accomplish that goal through economic reform. His reformist record dates to the 1980s, and he has Cuban economists busy developing policy options. Dissident Vladimiro Roca calls him Cuba's "number one reformer."

He has raised expectations that he will tackle chronic problems: excessive centralization; broken-down state enterprises that cheat consumers and breed corruption; low farm output; severe income inequality; and a generation of young people that has known nothing but shortage and sacrifice.

An economic opening would deliver political support for Cuba's successor government. And it is the only means to deliver the growth, jobs and higher incomes that can give hope to young Cubans and fair wages to teachers, doctors and others left behind in Cuba's post-Soviet economy.

How should we respond to these possibilities?

The administration should begin by ending its insistence that it will respond only to Cuba's complete conversion to democracy and free markets. Cubans surely would welcome incremental reforms that improve living standards, not to mention economic and political freedom. The administration's all-or-nothing posture is divorced from the reality on which our approaches to North Korea, China, Vietnam and other communist countries are based. It is a formula for irrelevance.

And Congress should increase American influence by building bridges rather than barriers to Cuba.

The administration has all but cut off individual Americans' contacts with Cuba. People-to-people and academic exchanges, family visits, religious and humanitarian programs, and travel by average Americans are nearly impossible -- if not illegal -- today.

President Bush's theory is that reduced travel cuts Cuba's hard-currency earnings and helps to "hasten the end of the Castro dictatorship." But his intelligence agencies certify that the dictatorship is unbothered: Cuban economic growth was 7.5 percent last year.

We should unite around a principle that Democrats and Republicans have long embraced, a principle that aided the West's success in the Cold War: American openness is a source of strength, not a concession to dictatorships.

It is time to permit free travel to Cuba, as provided in legislation we have introduced. Open travel would create a "free flow of ideas" that "would promote democratization," as dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe wrote shortly after his release from prison in 2004. It would also bring humanitarian benefits to Cubans as family visits increase and travelers boost Cuba's small but vital entrepreneurial sector.

Electoral politics should not prevent us from reaching out to 11 million neighbors who have lived under communism for 48 long years.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) led a 10-member House delegation to Cuba in December.

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