"Did you hear the speech?"
This was a frequent question among Cubans the morning after Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address. President Obama talked clear and loud: "This year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo."
He seemed confident while delivering the address -- and Cuba was a part of it. During his first term in office, Obama tried to work together with Capitol Hill, but had to face a group of legislators who put their personal interests above the interests of the American people.
Now the scene could become more polarized, if possible, considering that Republicans have the majority in both the House and Senate. The Obama Administration is pushing to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. He eased some regulations, but normal relations between our two countries are not possible while the embargo -- which we call "blockade" -- still remains.
Unfortunately, lifting the embargo depends on a vote in Congress, and we are aware that any congressional action will take time. Since the December 17th announcement that the countries were exploring relations, we have heard too many extreme positions on that matter. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary John Kerry regarding Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson's visit to Havana last week. "As the Administration pursues further engagement with Cuba, I urge you to link the pace of changes in U.S. policy to reciprocal action from the Castro regime. The Cuban people, in their continued struggle for democracy and fundamental freedoms, deserve nothing less than our unwavering support," he wrote.
Another longtime critic of Cuba, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), has shown strong opposition to any change. "This notion that somehow being able to travel more to Cuba -- to sell more consumer products -- the idea that's going to lead to some democratic opening is absurd," he said.
The Cuban-American lobby is the only significant ethnic lobby against normal relations between its native country and the United States. This is senseless. Someone asked me one time: "What could the United States gain by ending the embargo?" I responded: "What is the benefit of not ending it?"
That policy has been condemned in the United Nations for more than two decades, and over all, it has not accomplished its goal.
"When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new," said Obama. "We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date."
The President's new approach has the support of many congressmen, economic sectors, and most of the American public opinion, as a recent poll proved.
A delegation of Democratic legislators visited Cuba since the announcement, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy. "We want to explore opportunities for greater cooperation and to encourage Cuban officials to address issues of real concern to the American people and to their representatives in Congress," he declared.
After meeting with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez, Leahy talked positively about the trip. "I think he is open to every single issue -- from trade to communications to establishing relations in agriculture," Leahy told reporters, according to Reuters. "It's not like we're negotiating with countries we've been at war with."
I was born in 1989, at the beginning of a very difficult period of time for Cuba. I grew up as part of a generation that has known nothing but the embargo and confrontation between our countries.
But at the same time, we have so much in common. Cuba and the United States have had historical and cultural ties for centuries.
Of course, we have serious differences, too. But I strongly believe we can learn how to coexist. We have to. It is the right thing to do. After all, we are neighbors, just separated 90 miles from each other. There are almost two millions Cuban-Americans in the United States. The Miami metropolitan area has more Cubans than anywhere on the planet, after Havana.
Complete normalization will take time -- maybe a long time. Meanwhile, if the United States government truly wants to help the Cuban people and "extend the hand of friendship," as President Obama said Tuesday, Congress should do what the Cuban people, and increasingly the American people, have asked for a long time now: lift the embargo.
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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