On Dec. 17, I flew to Cuba to accompany Alan Gross home after five years in a Havana prison. It was a joyous experience, and the catalyst for President Obama’s decision, with the strong support of Pope Francis, to chart a new course of reconciliation between the people of the United States and Cuba.
As the president said in his State of the Union address, it is now time to end the embargo which has failed — through eight U.S. presidencies — to achieve any of its objectives and has been exploited by the Castro regime as a phony excuse for its totalitarian rule. It has also been an excuse for other governments, including some of our democratic allies, to avoid pressing Cuba to reform, and it has damaged our relations throughout the hemisphere.
On Monday, I returned from another visit to Havana. I spoke to Cubans on the street, as well as reformers and activists who have paid dearly for their courageous opposition to the government’s paternalistic and oppressive rule. Some oppose President Obama’s decision, fearing that it may prolong the Castros’ hold on power. But the overwhelming majority said it has given them hope, which they have not had for a very, very long time.
Not surprisingly, a few voices in Congress reflexively condemned the president’s actions. Their arguments boil down to this: Cuba remains a one-party state whose government severely punishes dissent and is a sponsor of terrorism.
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On the first point of course they are right. Political dissidents and human rights advocates are harassed and jailed. The average Cuban has only limited legal access to news other than Soviet-style government propaganda.
But the solution of the president’s critics is only more of the same, even though it hasn’t worked for five decades, did nothing to help Alan Gross or the Cuban people, and has enabled the Castros to blame the so-called U.S. “blockade” for the daily hardships suffered by 11 million Cubans due to a dysfunctional economic system.
The president’s critics also apply a flagrant double standard. They rightly say that Cuba should free all political prisoners; provide unrestricted access to the Internet; permit Cubans to travel freely; allow independent journalists to operate; and hold free elections. Like most who oppose the U.S. embargo, I agree with all of this.
But they ignore that many U.S. friends and allies, with whom we not only have diplomatic relations but to whom we also sell weapons and provide U.S. taxpayer aid, do not come close to meeting this standard. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are just two examples. The critics apparently believe that engagement through diplomatic relations and trade everywhere except Cuba — including with countries whose armed forces have extensive control of their economies — is in our national interest, despite the repressive and corrupt policies of other governments.
And while they rightly call on Cuba’s government to let its citizens travel freely — ignoring that Cubans, including dissidents, are traveling more freely than at any time in 53 years — they want to prevent Americans from visiting Cuba. There is no other country in the world that American tourists are prevented from traveling to by their own government, yet the president’s critics defend this absurd double standard.
The critics’ other argument is that the Castro regime is a sponsor of terrorism, primarily because it once supported the FARC rebels who have engaged in terrorism in Colombia.
What they don’t say is that three years ago Cuba began hosting negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC to end a 50-year armed conflict. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, a close U.S. ally, has praised Cuba’s role.
Finally, the president’s critics vehemently and reflexively accuse anyone who doesn’t share their infatuation with the ineffective, unilateral sanctions as an apologist, guilty of “appeasement” or of “legitimizing” the Castro regime. This would, by implication, also apply to every other country, including our closest allies, who long ago established diplomatic relations with Cuba.
As the author of much of the U.S. human rights legislation of the past two decades, I know that such smears are as inaccurate as they are offensive. I also know the Castros will try to maintain their control. Normalization will be a process, and its pace will depend in part on Cuba’s actions, including the resolution of property disputes.
As in other countries with repressive governments, our embassy in Havana will defend the Cubans’ right to free expression. And it will support U.S. commercial interests, U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, private Cuban entrepreneurs, and exchanges with the Cuban people, the majority of whom were born after the 1959 revolution. They are Cuba’s future, and rather than continue to isolate them and add to their despair, we should do what we can to help them prepare for what lies ahead.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is president pro tempore emeritus of the Senate and ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.