The door to Cuba isn't thrown wide open yet, but it is significantly more ajar today as relaxation in travel, trade and investment prohibitions take effect. Tampa Bay is among the regions most likely to benefit from President Barack Obama's efforts to normalize diplomatic relations, and local leaders should make all efforts to restore historic ties to the island nation. After a half-century of failed foreign policy, this is a welcome change.
Tampa Bay has seen what even small changes can mean for increased opportunities in Cuba. Since 2011, when flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana resumed, passenger trips have increased eightfold, to more than 53,000 in 2014. This week, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg took advantage of the educational visa exemption to have some students spend their winter term studying the differences between capitalist and communist economies. Next week, Pinellas County Commissioners Janet Long and John Morroni are among a group of two dozen local residents headed to Cuba on an educational trip.
Such person-to-person interactions cannot be underestimated in a country that has been largely walled off from the United States for much of the last 54 years due to the embargo. Though tourism by U.S. citizens is still banned, starting today Obama has relaxed requirements on the 12 categories of travelers who are allowed to go — from teachers to church groups. U.S. citizens are now allowed to use credit cards on the island, and families can remit up to $8,000 annually, a fourfold increase. Perhaps more significantly, some U.S. businesses can invest there and export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. To aid all that, financial institutions can open accounts at Cuban banks and insurance companies can provide coverage there. Of note, TIA has invested in marketing and rejuvenated its website, gotocuba.org, in hopes of ensuring more trips and cargo flow through its gates under the relaxed rules.
What it will all mean in the end: new markets for U.S. business, but also a significant increase in the number of Cubans exposed to Western culture and capitalism, increasing the odds that human rights and free trade will come more quickly to the island.
For a month, opponents of diplomatic relations with Cuba, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, have ignored that the embargo has done little to undermine the Havana regime and contended that Obama's plan will only enable the communist rulers. After more than a generation of failed foreign policy, it's past time for a new strategy. Obama has started the process, and Congress should follow by lifting the embargo.