The establishment of full diplomatic ties is a win-win for Cuba and the United States. Cuba will finally return fully into the community of American nations, and the United States has cut its strategic losses with a failed strategy designed to bring about democratic change to the island. In the eyes of Latin American diplomats and public opinion, President Obama's actions have brought a sigh of relief and exaltation.
But how far Obama can take his own policy prescription is much less clear. Congress holds many of the keys, both diplomatic and economic, that will unlock the doors of enhanced U.S.-Cuban relations. For Obama, the door still tightest shut is the legislation hammered out by Republicans Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Dan Burton, formerly entitled the "Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act" and more commonly known as the "Helms-Burton Act," passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. The act consolidated previous restrictions toward Cuba and added new ones. In many respects, it reads like a time capsule -- less a throwback to the Cold War (which was over by then) than to the period of American bullying in the early years of the twentieth century. Key provisions pledged the U.S. to pursue a "mandatory international embargo" and to make preparations for a "transition government . . . [that] does not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro." Clearly, both of those central tenets failed.
Obama will now seek to hollow out Helms-Burton by navigating within the very narrow parameters afforded him by the legislation, but the law clearly establishes that only a future act of Congress can put a full end to the embargo. For tourists eagerly waiting to book their flights, and cigar aficionados holding their breath for the import of Cuban puros, the reality is that Helms-Burton still prohibits both (and much more). For now, and perhaps for a while to come, non-Cuban Americans will be left simply with the idea of Cuban-U.S. rapprochement. As of today, the special licenses required for all non-Cuban Americans to travel to the island are no longer required. And travelers will now be able to spend up to $100 on Cuban goods that they can bring back to the United States, including the formerly prohibido rum and cigars. In short, the diplomatic opening matters a lot, but it is only the first step in what is rapidly emerging as a contentious public debate, one both politically and morally necessary.
Cuba ranks immensely high in the U.S. political imaginary for the fundamental reason that the Cuban revolution is still regarded as an unpardonable tear in the fabric of "Pan-Americanism." Latin Americans, on the whole, have moved beyond that tear, a rupture that impacted those societies to a far greater degree than ours. For the many Cubans who were displaced by the revolution -- a forced diaspora that continues up to this day -- the tear remains an open wound.
Cuba is still a country in which a one-party state reigns supreme, with a virtual absence of due process and in which freedom of political assembly and speech exist largely in the rhetorical promise of revolutionary principles rather than in reality. But it is also a country whose revolutionary ideals influenced a generation (or more). A semi-underground, highly educated yet understandably hesitant civil society pokes through from the shadows and yearns for a larger presence. Helms-Burton failed to bring about the fundamental transformation intended by the legislation, but changes in Cuban political culture are ready to take place. A reopening to Cuba by the United States will have a tremendous impact in pushing the process forward.
Holding Cuba to a high democratic standard is a legitimate principle for U.S. policymakers to establish, but let's now throw out the bathwater from Helms-Burton and regain our focus on what reconciliation can and should attain: an engaged dialogue that opens rather than narrows the space for Cuba political, economic and cultural expression and allows the country to retain its revolutionary achievements within a democratic framework.
By rendering a Big Stick, Helms-Burton in fact diminished U.S. moral authority toward Cuba in the eyes of Latin America and became a useful prop for Cuban denunciations of U.S. imperialist designs on the island. In a few days, President Barack Obama will make his State of the Union Address. He is certain to present a challenge to Congress to revisit the Helms-Burton Act and to lift the trade and travel restrictions that are an integral component of that legislation. He will also push Congress to initiate a meaningful debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba. This debate must move beyond the deeply entrenched ideological contours of previous discussions in order to address the new reality and opportunities created by Obama's diplomatic fait accompli. For the first time in a long time, a longstanding wound at the heart of Pan-Americanism has an opportunity to heal. It is now up to Congressional leaders to decide if they will be part of the process of reconciliation.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
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