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Topic A: Obama's Cuba Policy

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 12:05 AM

Yesterday the White House announced that President Obama will lift restrictions for Cuban Americans on travel, remittances and other aid to Cuba. The Post asked advocates and experts to weigh in on the significance of the president's decision. Below are contributions from Bernard Aronson, Mel Martinez, Jorge Castañeda, Andrés Martinez, Jeff Flake, Wayne S. Smith, Peter Hakim and Sarah Stephens.

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BERNARD ARONSON

Assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989-1993; former co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Cuba in the 21st Century

President Obama's actions are both welcome and overdue. Cuban Americans are the best ambassadors for democracy in Cuba, and, purely on humanitarian grounds, Cuban Americans should be allowed to visit their family members on the island and provide them financial assistance and material support. But these steps are also the least politically controversial.

The real question is: Will the United States develop a meaningful process of engagement with Cubans in order to influence the inevitable transition that will occur after the aging Castro leadership departs? A growing consensus, which includes a significant part of the Cuban American community, supports much more ambitious people-to-people programs between Cuba and the United States. The president could instruct the Treasury Department to pursue this under existing law by far more forward-leaning licensing of scientific, artistic, cultural, athletic, religious, and academic exchanges. Toward China, Vietnam, and other countries that still identify themselves as communist-led, the United States has pursued a policy of greater engagement, open trade and formal diplomatic relations. We need an honest and open domestic debate about why Cuba should be the exception.

MEL MARTINEZ

Republican senator from Florida

As a Cuban American with family still in Cuba, I commend the administration for wanting to get government out of the way of family reunification. As the president prepares to visit Latin America, the focus now shifts to the behavior of the regime in Havana.

It is time for the Cuban government to remove its barriers to family reunification by allowing Cuban families to travel freely within Cuba and outside of the country. The regime also has an opportunity to stop despicably taking 20 percent of remittances sent to Cuba. The White House has called on Cuba to end the "usurious fees" the regime places on remittances.

The discussion now must be about the relationship the Castro government has with the Cuban people. Any further discussion of changes in U.S. policy should only come in response to concrete changes in Cuba.

JORGE CASTAÑEDA AND ANDRÉS MARTINEZ

Fellows at the New America Foundation; Castaneda was foreign secretary of Mexico from 2000 to 2003

For once Barack Obama can't be accused of pushing for ambitious change. The minor adjustments he has made to American policy towards Cuba simply take us back to the days of the Clinton administration, a time when the trade embargo and the travel ban had already proven to be counterproductive anachronisms. They still are.

Cuba policy is seen throughout Latin America as reflective of American attitudes towards the hemisphere. Keeping the embargo in place isolates the United States, and it signals an arrogant desire to continue treating Cuba as merely a bilateral problem, if not a domestic one.

The Obama administration should instead seek to address the challenge posed by Cuba's totalitarian regime on a multilateral basis, working alongside major Latin democracies such as Mexico, Chile and Brazil. This is easier said than done because the leaders of these nations have been reluctant to approach Cuba in a manner consistent with their values. None of these countries bound by regional treaties committing themselves to democracy and human rights have much appetite for taking the Castro brothers to task for running a tropical Gulag -- especially not so long as the embargo is in place.

Washington needs to lift the embargo, but Latin Americans need to come together to insist that Cuba schedule real elections and truly respect human rights before it returns to the hemispheric community.

JEFF FLAKE

Republican congressman from Arizona

I've often said that the U.S. will never have a sensible Cuba policy as long as presidential campaigns are perceived to end in Florida. But I may have spoken too soon.

While I didn't support Barack Obama's presidential campaign, I was impressed that he didn't kowtow to the Cuban American hardliners when he campaigned in Florida last year. Rather than promising to tighten Cuba policy, as nearly every presidential candidate, Republican and Democrat, had done before him, candidate Obama promised to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans. And this week, President Obama made good on that promise.

These changes will have limited effect on Americans outside of the Cuban American community, but the symbolic nature of the announcement is much broader. I hope that it signals that we are on the verge of a more thoughtful policy with Cuba.

After nearly 50 years, we have little to show for our current policy. Intended to weaken the Castro regime and hasten democratic reforms, the embargo has done neither. Instead, it has given Castro a convenient excuse for the failures of socialism. If we hope to have any meaningful influence over the situation in Cuba moving forward, we need a new approach. These new measures represent a good start.

WAYNE S. SMITH

Senior fellow at the Center for International Policy; chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-1982

There were indications yesterday morning that the White House would announce it was not only lifting restrictions on the travel of Cuban Americans, but also that of U.S. academics, cultural groups and other visitor categories. So yesterday's press conference by Dan Restrepo of the National Security Council was very disappointing. He made it clear that only restrictions on Cuban Americans would be affected, and he gave no indication that any other measures would be taken to ease relations between Cuba and the U.S. On the contrary, Restrepo's demeanor reminded me of the Bush administration. If this is all the Obama administration has to offer by way of change in our Cuba policy, the president is in for a difficult time at the upcoming Summit of the Americas. Our Cuba policy has zero support internationally, and Latin American states have indicated they expect some real change on our part. Let's hope that President Obama reconsiders between now and the summit opening.

PETER HAKIM

President of the Inter-American Dialogue

President Obama knows that nothing will better highlight his administration's intention to pursue a fresh approach to Latin America than dismantling the web of restrictions that the United States has imposed on Cuba. And the Cuban American community, which has blocked any easing of Cuba policy to date, is politically weaker and more diverse than it once was. Still, its views have to be taken into account.

So the logical next steps by the Administration might include: lifting restrictions on travel to Cuba for all American citizens and allowing international institutions such as the Organization of American States to engage Cuba. Eventually, Washington should seek a wide-ranging dialogue with Havana (as it did with Vietnam nearly 15 years ago) that would set the two countries on a course toward normal diplomatic and commercial ties. Over time, the pace and significance of U.S. policy changes should respond to reciprocal actions by Cuba. There should be no question about Washington's support for free expression and association, the rule of law, human rights, and competitive elections in Cuba. But a democratic society in Cuba should be the objective of U.S. engagement, not a precondition.

SARAH STEPHENS

Executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas

President Obama has a historic opportunity to be not just the eleventh president of the Cold War, but the first president to turn the page on U.S.-Cuba relations. To achieve that breakthrough, he needs to allow all Americans, not just Cuban Americans, to travel to Cuba, because we can all be good ambassadors for our country and its values. He needs to end America's diplomatic isolation from Cuba, so that it's not just Russia and China and other countries cultivating commercial and strategic relations with the island. Finally, he should allow the U.S. to cooperate with Cuba on matters such as counter-narcotics cooperation and hurricane prediction, which would return benefits to both countries and enable our diplomats to build relationships of trust.


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