For nearly 20 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War took a less bloody but equally hostile form. The United States and Vietnam had no diplomatic relations. Vietnamese assets were frozen. Trade was embargoed. But in 1995 the United States normalized relations with Vietnam. The Cold War had ended, and we even signed a trade deal with a country where 58,000 Americans had given their lives.
The result? A Vietnam that is less isolated, more market-oriented, and, yes, freer — though it has miles to go.
Yet when it comes to a small impoverished island 90 miles off the coast of Florida, we cling to a policy that has manifestly failed for nearly 50 years.
While our Cuba policy has largely stood still, reality has changed dramatically. Today, the Cuban "threat" is a faint shadow, change is afoot in the Cuban leadership, and — importantly — Cuban-Americans increasingly seek broad, far-reaching interaction across the Florida Straits.
We need a Cuba policy that looks forward, brings our strengths to bear, and builds on what works to help the Cuban people shape their country's future.
Democracy in Cuba rightly remains an American policy goal. But for 47 years, our embargo in the name of democracy has produced no democracy at all. Too often, our rhetoric and policies have actually furnished the Castro regime with an all-purpose excuse to draw attention away from its many shortcomings. We have played to Fidel Castro's strengths, not ours.
Fortunately, we know there is a different strategy that can succeed. The Clinton administration refocused policy around what matters: on the Cuban people, not the Castro brothers; on the future, not the past; and on America's long-term national interests, not the political expediencies of a given moment.
We improved cooperation on issues like migration and fighting drug trafficking. Family travel in both directions skyrocketed, and the regime's portrayal of us as the neighborhood bully was readily debunked. Americans helped repair a synagogue roof, and Baltimore Orioles players visiting Cuba for an exhibition game gave children bats and balls — gestures of American generosity.
As promised, the Obama administration has expanded licenses for Cuban-Americans — albeit only Cuban-Americans — to travel to Cuba. Controls on family remittances, gift parcels and telecommunications transactions have been loosened as well. Mid-level talks about immigration and postal relations have resumed. And we've turned off an Orwellian electronic billboard flashing political messages from our Interests Section in Havana.
These are positive steps, but they are only a start. So what comes next?
First, at a minimum, the administration should reinvigorate people-to-people relations. When announcing expanded family travel, the president said, "There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans." True, but there are 299 million other Americans whose challenging minds, economic success, love for democracy and solid values make them proud ambassadors as well.
Second, the administration should review the programs that the Bush administration funded generously to substitute for people-to-people diplomacy.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is already considering how best to reform Radio and TV Martí. After 18 years TV Martí still has no significant audience in Cuba. U.S. civil society programs may have noble objectives, but we need to examine whether we're achieving them.
In addition, I am announcing my support for the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. Nowhere else in the world are Americans forbidden by their own government to travel. Americans who can get a visa are free to travel to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and even North Korea. This act does not lift the embargo or normalize relations. It merely stops our government from regulating or prohibiting travel to or from Cuba, except in certain obviously inappropriate circumstances.
Free travel is also good policy inside Cuba. Visiting Europeans and Canadians have already had a significant impact by increasing the flow of information and hard currency to ordinary Cubans. Americans can be even greater catalysts of change.
Studies of change in Eastern and Central Europe find the more outside contact a country has, the more peaceful and durable its democratic transition. That's one reason why all of Cuba's major prodemocracy groups support free travel, as do longtime Castro critics like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch. A majority of Cuban-Americans have joined the rest of the country in supporting travel to Cuba by all American citizens.
Today, we have a choice: seek solace in old rhetoric, ignore change and resist it, or mold it and channel it into a new policy to help achieve our goals. After 50 years of failure, it's time to try something new.
John Kerry, D-Mass., is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.