In April 2009, as one of its first foreign-policy initiatives, the Obama administration relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba, making it possible for Cuban Americans to visit relatives and send remittances. Remarkably, however, this still left restrictions on U.S.-Cuba travel tighter than they'd been under the Clinton administration, as if the Cold War against communism had somehow become more important in the 21st century. This week, the administration leaked its intention to change this by reversing the Bush administration's restrictions on "people to people" visits by religious, academic, and cultural groups. It's a welcome step, but the arguments in its favor merely highlight the larger truth about Cuba: The entire policy is a massive, decades-long case study in policy failure.
Standing in the way of more robust reform is a cocktail of ethnic politics and conservative ideology. The changes in the works are opposed by Cuban American politicians -- mostly Republicans, but also Democrats including Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey -- in keeping with the community's long-standing embrace of unproductive foreign-policy views.
Most Cuban American families (though not mine) were founded by immigrants who fled the Cuban Revolution or the Castro regime. They have, consequently, formed their political identity largely around an anti-Castro vendetta and a doomed effort to regain property nationalized in the early 1960s. Twenty years after the fall of European communism, however, we can say with absolute clarity that embargoing Cuba has not been an effective means of bringing down the regime. We also know that post-communist regimes are no more inclined to return confiscated property than the United States is to return land to Native Americans.
Meanwhile, events in Asia highlight the extent to which America's approach to Cuba displays a dangerous indifference to the welfare of the Cuban people. The debate over policy toward Cuba has traditionally been tied up in the conflict between the over-the-top anti-Castro sentiments of the right and the curious affection some on the left have for the dictator. But the case against the embargo has no relationship to the merits of the regime. Consider the People's Republic of China, another authoritarian regime, but one whose population today enjoys a standard of living far higher than it had 20 years ago. Nobody thinks that the right way to express our distaste for the conduct of that country's rulers would be to try to deny the entire population the hard-won fruits of their current prosperity by imposing a total embargo on China. And yet that's precisely what we've done with Cuba for the past 50 years -- forbid the vast majority of trade and travel in order to weaken the regime by impoverishing the country.
The dispute between engaging with foreign regimes and isolating them is sometimes cast as a disagreement between cynical "realism" and moral "idealism." The reality, however, is that there's nothing moral or idealistic about inflicting collective economic punishment on millions of foreigners via a travel restriction. It's true that exceptions can exist, as when the African National Congress urged outsiders to sanction apartheid-era South Africa, but such scenarios are exceptional.
The real essence of the conservative approach, as exemplified by the long-standing and pointless Cuba embargo, is to prioritize symbolic expressions of outrage over efforts to actually accomplish anything. Hence, the implication that opponents of invading Iraq sympathize with Saddam Hussein or that skepticism about the merits of an endless military engagement in Afghanistan implies blindness to the real evil of the Taliban.
The policy against Cuba stands out from the general trend, however, for its sheer lunacy. Cuba isn't building nuclear weapons. Cuba isn't sponsoring violent international terrorists. Other Soviet Bloc countries were never treated as harshly as Cuba during the Cold War, and the Cold War has been over for decades. It's a nasty dictatorship, yes, but it's hardly the only one. And if anything, the embargo has done more to bolster the regime than to undermine it -- offering a lazy path to ideological legitimacy and stifling the emergence of a more diverse set of domestic interest groups in Cuba with ties abroad.
Lifting travel restrictions is a good place to start, because they are particularly irksome and counterproductive. At the end of the day, enhanced person-to-person contact between Cubans and residents of wealthy democracies seems likely to do much more to undermine dictatorship than to bolster it. Outsiders are a source of new information and perspective, alternatives to the government propaganda machine. Though fully lifting the embargo seems unlikely, one can only hope the administration will eventually follow the logic of its new travel policies and fully lift restrictions on travel to Cuba. There's no reason casual tourists shouldn't be allowed to go. Indeed, my guess is that if a flood of American tourists started showing up, the Cuban government might take steps to stem the tide. That's the role dictatorships are supposed to play in this dynamic -- trying to cut their population off from contact with outsiders. For 50 years, the U.S. government has been playing jail keeper. It's long past time to stop.