The news leaked out quite quickly. First, Alan Gross was released. Hours later, President Obama scheduled an announcement on changes to Cuba policy. Rumors promised that it would be big. Then, the White House fact sheet appeared, embargoed until the hour of the speech. Next came the speech -- and it was indeed big. The President's actions were about as close to the full extent of his executive authority as we could have wished. Then, celebration mixed with disbelief.
There are many people to recognize for encouraging, supporting, and taking this bold policy move: President Obama, Pope Francis, Secretary of State Kerry, key senators and members of Congress, congressional and White House staff who served as negotiators and motivators, forward-thinking journalists and editors, academics and educators. Thanks are also due to those Cuban Americans who have been central to the anti-embargo effort for years, reaching out to the Congress to repeal the embargo laws and more recently to the Obama Administration to take executive action, writing analytic papers and giving countless interviews. It is also important to consider the multiple grassroots organizations, who have worked both center-stage and behind-the-scenes to make this action possible.
Cuban Americans have worked energetically to impact U.S. policy toward Cuba, and they were not alone. Many NGOs have dedicated years to changing this policy, and at the heart of their work have been the hundreds of thousands of everyday (and far from ordinary) U.S. citizens who have been committed to this struggle for the long haul. Lacking a government-to-government relationship, these advocates have played the role of citizen diplomats, calling our country to a new way to relate to our island neighbor. They have traveled to Cuba with licenses, and also through third-countries, at their own expense, for learning, friendship, and exchange. They have carried out passionate solidarity work, signing petitions to policy makers, participating in rallies and protest marches, sponsoring and attending concerts and cultural events with Cuban musicians and artists. They have written countless letters to members of Congress and the administration, authored op-eds and letters to the editor, made numerous visits to Washington, D.C., to attend conferences and to educate policymakers on Capitol Hill on the wisdom and benefits of changing policy . . . simply because it was the right thing to do. And it still is.
The number of advocates for policy change has expanded in recent years to include new voices, voices as diverse as John and Patrick Hemingway (grandsons of Ernest), marine ecologists/conservationists, a re-engaged and energetic agriculture community, new Cuban-American organizations and individuals, medical groups, labor organizations, tech people, new voices in academia.
The hard work of this growing advocacy community is paying off. Under the President's new policy, less restrictive travel and engagement will lead to more and easier travel to the island and more exchange with Cubans. U.S. citizens will be able to travel "legally" to Cuba for many reasons -- to do research; to attend professional meetings and conferences; for educational activities; to attend public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic competitions, and exhibitions; to "support the Cuban people"; for religious activities; to carry out humanitarian projects. Well, you get the idea. Most everything is covered in 12 "legal" categories, except pure tourism. Eventually, communication from the island to the United States (and elsewhere) will be easier and cheaper. U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travelers to Cuba. And U.S. travelers will be able to bring back with them up to $400 worth of Cuban goods, including $100 worth of rum and Cuban cigars. This hasn't been possible since 2004.
Grassroots and U.S.-citizen support for engagement with Cuba has been abundantly clear. For years, national polls and Florida-specific Cuban-American polls have shown that the majority in this country, including the majority of Cuban Americans, want a new openness to Cuba. Florida International University's bi-annual poll has shown a regular up-tick in support by the majority of Cuban-American respondents for travel, diplomatic relations, and engagement. The Atlantic Council's significant public survey in February 2014 found that "56 percent of Americans, and over 60 percent of Floridians and Latinos" favored changing U.S. policy toward Cuba. It's amazing how long it is taking for our politicians to catch up to their constituents. And the trend continues. A CNN/ORC poll, taken six days after the President's ground-breaking Cuba policy announcement, found that six in 10 Americans favor diplomatic relations with Cuba and two-thirds want the travel restrictions to the island lifted.
While there is satisfaction in this new circumstance of U.S.-Cuba relations, we also know that there is more work to be done. The implementation of the President's recent announcement needs to be monitored; the new regulations from the Treasury Department must actually reflect what the President announced. Cuba must be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, following the review mandated by the President. And, very importantly, Congress must now accept its responsibility to repeal embargo laws and/or enact new laws to definitively change the policy and allow reconciliation between our two nations. Without such congressional votes, the President's actions are vulnerable to reversal and return to the more harmful policy of the past. This is no small task, as new allies on both sides of the political aisle in Congress must be developed so that legislation will actually pass the Congress and end up on the President's desk, ready for his signature.
And grassroots activists will be there again -- carrying out their responsibilities as constituents and their role as citizen diplomats. They will continue to meet with members of Congress to ensure that the embargo is eventually repealed in its entirety. They will work tirelessly to continue travel to Cuba and promote friendship between the two nations. They are, after all, the group that already has been in Cuba interacting with the Cuban people. Those connections and friendships already exist, and the grassroots groups will play a positive role in our relationship with Cuba for years to come. They deserve our thanks.
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.
If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: "90 Miles").