Time for a new approach on Cuba - says US Congressman

News from Cuba | Monday, 5 November 2012

Representative Jim McGovern is a Democrat Congressman from Massachusetts writing for the blog Politico

The next president - and I hope it’s Barack Obama - should at long last move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba. This means using his authority to lift financial and travel restrictions that make it so difficult for Americans to travel there; working with Congress to end economic sanctions imposed by the legislature; and removing Cuba from the so-called terrorist list on which it clearly doesn’t belong.

I don’t pretend this will be easy, but in small ways and large, it’s time to move into the 21st century with Cuba. The U.S. and Cuba both need to abandon the exhausted rhetoric - of the anti-Castro old guard here and the anti-American old guard in Havana. Both need to create the conditions for a relationship more fitting to the times. We need to put people ahead of politics, abolish the barriers between our nations and let Americans and Cubans make up their own minds about each other.

Certainly, the U.S. and Cuba have real differences - we don’t agree about economic freedoms, or about how elections should be conducted; we don’t agree about the Middle East, Iran or any number of other foreign policy issues. But it’s time we talked about these differences, as well as about the things we agree on. We can only do that through contact and engagement.

There is a long list of opportunities and grievances that require the attention of both countries. For the U.S., freedom for imprisoned U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross is at the top of the list. For Cuba, recognition of the many economic and social changes it has undergone over the past two years would be a welcome sign.

I have traveled to Cuba many times since the 1970s, and have seen significant changes, including the opening of more political space. This has happened in spite of our policy. Indeed, some of the steps taken by the Cuban government - releasing political prisoners, expanding the private sector, opening up room for churches and nongovernmental groups, relaxing exit visas to allow Cubans to travel abroad more easily - were the sort of measures President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called for with yet-unrealized suggestions of positive American response.

Over the past few years, every other nation in the Western Hemisphere has normalized relations with Cuba. In the run-up to April’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recommended that Cuba be invited to at least observe the gathering, a position endorsed by hemispheric leaders. But the U.S. opposed the Latin American consensus. Cuba stayed home, and the U.S. stood apart from its neighbors. This month, at the convening of the U.N. General Assembly, Clinton told the nations of Latin America that the U.S. is listening to their concerns about Cuba and a number of other issues. But listening is not the same as hearing, and it’s even further from changing course and acting. If America expects to retain leadership and respect in the hemisphere, the next president needs to do more than just “listen.”

Colombia reached out to Cuba, as it has in the past, to help advance secret exploratory talks with the FARC guerrillas, set an agenda for negotiations and end a bloody conflict that has lasted half a century. President Obama knew about these talks from the moment they began in February. Yet the administration issued its July 31 report on maintaining Cuba on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism while specifically citing the presence of FARC representatives on the island. And after the talks became “public” in September, the U.S. has yet to openly express appreciation for Cuba’s role in their success. The Colombian peace negotiations will start in Oslo this week, with Norway and Cuba acting as guarantors of the process.

Isolation is a policy that rarely works - and after more than 50 years of pursuing it with Cuba, it’s time to bring fresh eyes and an open mind to the table. It’s time for the U.S. to take action and re-engage with Cuba, and for both governments to hammer out a new, more productive approach. This will require each government to give up politically expedient rhetoric and policies, perhaps even beliefs, and forge a new path. I can’t tell you exactly how the Cuban government will respond to a U.S. initiative for a mature, respectful dialogue, but I know that continuing the current policies benefits no one except the most extreme ideologues - on both sides of the Florida Straits.

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