What I learned in Cuba

The flight from Florida to Cuba is a little over an hour, yet the countries remain a world apart.

Cuba is changing, however, as I learned on my recent fact-finding visit. Cuba has embarked on meaningful economic reforms, which deserve encouragement by the United States, not continued isolation. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have a window of opportunity to engage and encourage reform in Cuba and should act now.

Cuba has instituted significant changes to its economy through decentralization and some private ownership of property and private business, such as restaurants (paladares), private lodging (casas particulares), construction and other self-created small businesses (cuentapropistas). Reforms also are also under way in Cuba's agricultural sector.

I met with several Cubans who now work for themselves and are creating employment opportunities for other Cubans, which increases autonomy and self-determination. Cuba's decision to eliminate most travel restrictions is modestly increasing mobility, earning power and the ability to provide financial support for their families.

These developments remind me of the historic economic changes since the 1980s in the former Soviet bloc countries, and in China and Vietnam over the past 25 years. Indeed, I traveled to the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. The United States was directly engaged with those nations during their transition, and Americans were free to travel and interact with their people. American legal and economic experts and businesses directly aided the transition to greater freedom and personal economic opportunity.

If America officially acknowledged changes under way in Cuba, it would strengthen the hands of Cubans who want these reforms to succeed, and we could encourage Cuba to go further and faster.

America also should capitalize on economic changes occurring outside Cuba. One of Cuba's primary benefactors, Hugo Chavez, is gone and it is unlikely that Venezuela will have the capacity to continue to provide billions of dollars in economic aid and petroleum products to Cuba. In fact, in the Tampa Bay area, I know of recent immigrants who cite the fear of losing Venezuelan support and returning to another "special period" as their reason for leaving the island.

During my visit, Cuban officials made it clear to me they would like the embargo lifted and that they seek an improved relationship. America's allies in the Western Hemisphere have encouraged the United States to do so. Cuba and its citizens are more than a decade behind with respect to the Internet and broadband. Expansion of this advanced technology will be slow, but the improvement to human rights and efficiencies to Cuban society could be enormous.

Cuba and other foreign interests continue to prospect for oil in its territorial waters (so close to sensitive environmental resources in the Florida Straits). Despite multilateral discussions among the United States and Caribbean nations, the United States should have a more direct relationship. Cuba and Brazil are making a large investment in the modernization of Cuba's Port of Mariel in advance of the widening of the Panama Canal. U.S. ports, businesses and environmental concerns would benefit, or at least gain greater influence and understanding, with more direct engagement.

Small businesses, the tourism industry, Tampa International Airport and the Port of Tampa are poised to take advantage of broadening travel and trade to the island nation. Tampa Bay has the opportunity to become a "Gateway to Cuba." We can market Tampa to families, educational groups and cultural organizations traveling to Cuba as a jumping-off point to the island nation. They can learn about Cuba, participate in language and other immersion courses, eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels. Doing so will create jobs here in travel and tourism, and our small businesses will benefit.

These circumstances provide an opportunity for the United States to engage in a dialogue with Cuba to lift trade restrictions while promoting greater human rights for the Cuban people.

Lifting travel restrictions would not only be consistent with Americans' constitutional right to travel, it would facilitate greater exchange between the two countries and remove costly regulatory burdens. Americans are free to travel anywhere else in the world, including countries on the State Department's State Sponsor of Terrorism list. No rationale exists to singularly prohibit travel to Cuba.

The agency responsible for enforcement of travel restrictions and sanctions has other, more pressing responsibilities in real "hot spots" around the world. They should be able to focus on bad actors around the globe — like Iran and Syria — rather than red tape paperwork for Americans who wish to exercise their right to travel. The travel ban should be lifted or, at the very least, the United States should all allow permissible travel to be carried out under a general license. Streamlining travel would save resources at a time of sequester and significant federal belt-tightening.

Reforming Cuba policy will improve our diplomatic standing in the region and, at a critical moment, strengthen the credibility of our policy against terrorism. The Summit of the Americas concluded in 2012 with a warning from our allies that if Cuba is not allowed to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, they will boycott this important regional conference. The Obama administration should use the next two years to put U.S.-Cuban relations on a constructive path.

In this context, America could send a powerful signal to our allies in the region by responding creatively and appropriately to the peace negotiations taking place in Cuba between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. These peace talks may result in an end to five decades of violence and provide the United States with an important foreign policy victory. The United States has devoted years of leadership and millions of dollars of investment for peace in Colombia. All Western Hemisphere nations, including Cuba, should continue to work together to end the violence.

The Obama administration and Cuban government recently proved that direct dialogue can produce positive results. Right on the heels of my return to Tampa, Cuban officials expeditiously returned Cole and Chase Hakken, ages 4 and 2, who had been kidnapped by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.

I was able to speak directly to U.S. and Cuban officials to ensure that the boys were safe and urge their speedy return. Through the contacts I had made days earlier, I was able to connect the U.S. consul with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department and the boys' grandparents. The ability to communicate with these officials I had just met in Cuba is a simple example of the value of engagement and why it should become a principal feature of a new, reformed policy.

Make no mistake, the Cuban government must improve human rights. But it is clear that the policy of the embargo and isolation over 50 years hasn't improved the human rights situation. I have met with dissidents and human rights activists. Pedro Pablo Alvarez was jailed and eventually fled to the United States. Yoani Sanchez blogs about the challenges of everyday life in Cuba. What struck me was at the end of almost all of these conversations, they told me they believe that greater engagement, not isolation, is the way to help Cubans.

Engagement must be handled with a long-term vision and can only be hammered out through direct negotiation between the two countries. I am more convinced than ever that America should give greater attention to its island neighbor, lift the embargo and promote greater modernization of civil society in Cuba to benefit the Cuban people. Families and businesses in America also hope for a new day.

There is a generational change occurring in the leadership of Cuba just as has happened in other countries around the world. America can lay the groundwork for improvement in human rights, democracy and economic change that is long overdue — if leaders in government recognize this important window of opportunity.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, represents Florida's 14th congressional district, which includes Tampa and parts of St. Petersburg. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

What I learned in Cuba 05/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 1:54pm]

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