President Barack Obama began burying the last vestiges of the Cold War by ordering the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba. The bold and sweeping measure will expose Cubans to democracy, open trade opportunities for the United States, particularly in Florida, and strengthen America's influence in the Western Hemisphere. This day was inevitable and a long time coming, and critics such as Sen. Marco Rubio are out of touch with reality and on the wrong side of history.
The administration's announcement came this week as the two sides agreed to a prisoner exchange that led Cuba to release American Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor jailed by the Cuban regime in 2009 for distributing satellite telecommunications equipment to the island's Jewish population. Gross' release was long-sought and much delayed, but the surprise policy breakthrough has more long-term implications. Obama ordered the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, including the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana. The United States also will relax travel restrictions for the 12 categories of visitors now lawfully allowed to visit Cuba, from journalists and teachers to church groups. Tourist travel will still be banned. The United States will also quadruple the amount of money anyone in this country can send to Cuban nationals, to $2,000 per quarter. American banks will be allowed to process U.S.-issued debit and credit cards on the island. The United States will take Cuba off the State Department list of terrorist sponsors, where it has been for 32 years, and allow the export to Cuba of modern telecommunications equipment.
The 54-year-old trade embargo also should go, but only Congress can accomplish that, and under Republican control it is unlikely to end that failed approach. Obama's move will make a real difference in Cuba and hasten the day that congressional leaders will adopt a more pragmatic U.S. policy. Exposing more ordinary Cubans to American visitors, opening up the island's economy and expanding access to the Internet will only bring the public demand for human rights and individual liberty in Cuba more squarely before the Communist regime.
Younger Cuban Americans have largely moved on and are voting with their wallets and feet to connect with family and plan for the day when Cuba embraces human rights and is open for free trade. The prospects are rich for Florida and Tampa Bay. Visits to the island by then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, local political, business and civic leaders, the Florida Orchestra and others helped underscore the pointlessness of keeping the two peoples apart. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, lobbied hard for the Obama administration to change America's failing policy, and the resumption of direct flights between Tampa and Cuba reflects the strong connection between the island and the bay area. More than 53,000 passengers took a flight this year, eight times the number from when the flights first resumed in 2011.
Obama has made a historic policy change that positions the United States and Florida for the future. The vitriolic criticism by Rubio and other congressional Republicans is out of date and out of touch, and Congress should lift the embargo and stop clinging to a failed policy.