Since the United States first implemented a policy of isolation against Cuba more than 50 years ago, it has been enforced and defended by Republican and Democratic presidents alike. It’s not an issue that breaks neatly along party lines. In fact, when President Obama announced plans to ease trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, usually a fervent supporter of the president, was among the harshest critics of the move. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, hardly a fan of this administration, said he agreed with the policy change.
I don’t find myself agreeing with President Obama often, particularly on foreign policy, but he was right to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. For conservatives, there is much to recommend about this new way to address Cuba.
First and foremost, a five-decade policy of isolating Cuba has failed to achieve democratic reforms. It has, however, succeeded in giving the Castros a convenient excuse for the failures of socialism. While there may have been a compelling case for the embargo during the Cold War, those arguments clearly no longer apply.
Easing trade and travel should not be viewed as a concession or reward to the Castro regime. It’s actually a true “get tough” policy. It’s been no accident that in the past, a warming in U.S. posture has been met with Cuban provocation. The Castros know that while increased contact with the United States might have a positive impact on their economy, it comes at a cost. The island’s fledgling private sector strengthened by these changes will pose a greater challenge to any future tightening the regime may seek to pursue. Far from rewarding the Cuban government, we are saddling them with entrepreneurs who will soon wield real economic power.
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And when I joke that a “get tough” policy with the Castros would be forcing them to deal with Spring Break, I’m only half joking. Sure, some Americans will simply travel to Cuba for sunshine and mojitos, but many will have more lasting intentions. They will bring with them flash drives, cell phones, books and other items that we take for granted, but that the Castros know will erode the control that they maintain over the island.
This is, fundamentally, an issue of freedom. U.S. trade and travel restrictions aren’t restrictions on Cubans — they are restrictions on Americans. If a government is going to tell its citizens where they can and can’t travel, it ought to be a communist country, not the greatest country in the world.
There’s an added benefit for conservatives when we allow Americans to travel freely. We have a veritable museum of the failures of socialism just 90 miles from our shores. Every American ought to see what happens when government controls not just the commanding heights of the economy, but all aspects of society. It isn’t pretty, and it makes one better appreciate our freedoms.
U.S. foreign policy ought to embody American ideals — freedom, democracy and free enterprise. By isolating Cuba we’ve ignored the power of those ideals. After 50 years, it’s time for a change.
Jeff Flake, Arizona U.S. senator, Washington, D.C.