A photograph that emerged from Tuesday's meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama perfectly captured the mixed emotions regarding the future of U.S.-Cuba relations: Castro holding aloft President Obama's left arm, attempting to strike a triumphant pose, while the American's wrist dangles limply, seemingly uncertain or uncomfortable about the moment.
Obama's historic visit to Havana — he became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years — was his latest step in what he declared in December 2014 would be a "new course" on policy toward the longtime adversary. That ultimately must result in the lifting of the 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, a relic of the Cold War that has failed to achieve its goal of toppling the communist regime.
A different strategy is needed. Instead of isolating Cuba economically (although it is free to trade with the vast majority of the rest of the world), why not flood the country with the fruits of American capitalism? That's more likely to weaken the Castro brothers' hold on power.
Such a major change in policy would have enormous benefits to Florida, resulting in a free flow of goods between here and Havana, greater investment, as well as expanded opportunities for travel by air and sea. It would also be a boon to many of the 1.2 million Cuban-Americans who live in the Sunshine State, either those who are exiles or their U.S.-born children, who still have family in Cuba.
For example, President Obama recently used his executive powers to liberalize trade and travel rules regarding Cuba that will allow more Americans to visit the island and make it easier for Cuban-Americans to send money there.
Obama's personal visit sends an important message to the Cuban people that the United States and its people are not the enemy. Their future freedom and prosperity lie in the hands of the Castro regime and its economic and political policies. Eliminating barriers between the two nations must result in pressure on Havana to change.
Critics say Obama has surrendered to much to Cuba and received little in return, particularly on the issue of human rights. And indeed, as if to justify those complaints, before the president's plane landing Monday the Cuban government beat, arrested and jailed more than 50 pro-democracy dissidents — most of them members of the Ladies in White, a group composed of the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of political prisoners.
However, U.S. trade does not confer approval on a nation's politics. By opening avenues to Cuba, the United States is treating it as it does other trade partners with poor records on human rights — most notably China. When the stick doesn't work, the carrot is employed to modify behavior. It's a long, often frustrating process. Nevertheless, a small but satisfying product of that strategy occurred Monday, when during a joint press conference Raul Castro actually took questions from the assembled media — an extremely rare occurrence in Cuba. Castro was appropriately asked, repeatedly and pointedly, about his government imprisoning people for their political beliefs. He responded ludicrously by denying that his regime kept political prisoners, and demanded the names of prisoners so he could release them immediately.
"If there are political prisoners, they'll be free before nightfall," he declared.
The more the American and Cuban cultures are allowed to intermingle, the more the Castro regime's dishonesty and bankrupt ideology will be exposed.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD