1. Opinion

Editorial: U.S. should engage, not isolate, Cuba

Published Feb. 27, 2013

A Cuba without a Castro is now on the horizon, and the United States and Florida should be prepared for the opportunity. Cuban President Raul Castro announced Sunday he will retire in five years, and when he leaves in 2018 it appears that for the first time since 1959 a Castro brother will not be running the country. The rhetoric from Havana aside, this is another significant step toward meaningful change that Florida should be prepared capitalize on by strengthening ties to the island.

Castro's retirement announcement is not entirely surprising given his advanced age of 81. What is more intriguing is his call for term limits and age limits on political officeholders, including his successor, and his positioning of a front-runner to take his place. Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, 52, is from a younger generation than the Castro brothers, one that did not fight in the revolution that brought Fidel Castro and the communists to power. Just as the younger generation of Cuban exiles in South Florida has different views about the relationship between the United States and Cuba, so too may younger Cubans on the island.

This is the time to reconsider the out-of-date hard line from an older generation and end the failed Cuba embargo. The idea should be more communication now with Cubans, not less, even as the United States continues to call for free speech and better human rights. Raul Castro has made a number of economic reforms since he took over in 2006, and that direction should be encouraged in the coming years.

For example, the relaxed travel rules implemented last month by the Cuban government will let Cubans who can afford it to travel freely and return to their country. This is good news for the Cuban people who have lived as virtual prisoners on the island nation. It means, ironically, that Cubans now enjoy greater freedom to come to the United States than our government gives Americans to travel to Cuba. Cuba is changing in some positive ways. American policy should respond in kind.

To leave Cuba temporarily or permanently, the Cuban people will no longer be required to have a letter of invitation from another nation or go through a bureaucratic process to obtain an exit visa that had cost nearly $400 and could result in denial. Now they can vote with their feet, particularly if they have friends or relatives willing to underwrite the move.

This could lead to a surge in Cuban migration to the United States. Yet the United States doesn't intend to increase the number of immigrant visas provided for Cubans, which amount to about 20,000 annually.

One opportunity for change is to meet Cuba's concession with a similar step. President Barack Obama could eliminate the remaining travel restrictions imposed on Americans traveling to Cuba. In 2011, Obama loosened the rules, allowing American students and religious and cultural groups to visit Cuba, leading to hundreds of thousands of trips there by Americans from airports such as Tampa International.

Change is coming to Cuba, and this is the time for American engagement instead of isolation.