For the last half a century, the United States and Cuba have been separated by more than just the 247 miles between the Port of Miami and the Puerto de la Habana. Because of the economic embargo in place for much of that time, the two countries have been worlds apart. Recently, however, President Barack Obama has attempted to bridge that divide by announcing historic changes to the bilateral relationship between the United States and Cuba.
Some of those changes are well known. Chief among them is the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, including reopening the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, which had been closed more than 50 years ago. When Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba to celebrate the reopening of the embassy, he was the highest ranking official to visit the country since the Castro Revolution in 1959 (and the only Secretary of State to travel there in the last 70 years). Cuba likewise reopened its embassy in Washington. Other changes, however, are not as well known.
For instance, In January (and more recently September) of this year, the Obama administration eased restrictions imposed by a byzantine regulatory scheme governing the ability of Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba. Under the recently amended regulations, it is now easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, although tourist travel remains prohibited. There are no longer dollar limits on the amount of remittances Americans can send to Cuban nationals or carry with them to Cuba. Americans traveling to Cuba may use debit cards and credit cards, as well as open bank accounts in Cuba so they can access funds for authorized transactions. Telecommunications or internet-based service providers may now establish a physical presence in Cuba, hire Cubans, and market their services. And building materials, equipment, and tools for use by the private sector to construct or renovate privately owned buildings may now be exported to Cuba. According to the Obama administration, these changes—both diplomatic and economic—are intended to further engage the Cuban people and empower the nascent Cuban private sector.
On the one hand, I am hopeful these diplomatic and economic reforms will help bridge the divide between the United States and Cuba. Perhaps, as the Brookings Institution has suggested, normalized relations with Cuba may decrease Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela. The recent regulatory changes will hopefully increase internet connectivity for Cubans—thereby increasing access to information. Studies have shown that a majority of Cuban-Americans-albeit mostly the younger generation–favor normalized relations with Cuba.
On the other hand, I can empathize with Cubans–people who literally had their land taken from them–who oppose the restoration of diplomatic relations absent meaningful political reform. Nearly 30 years ago, my parents moved to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico so their children could have economic opportunities that did not exist there. Thirty years later, the economic conditions in Puerto Rico make it nearly impossible for my parents to permanently return to the land where they were born and raised. But the fact is my parents can return to Puerto Rico if they want to and worship as they chose and criticize the very policies that have made Puerto Rico economically unsustainable–an option not available to Cubans who had to flee their country or those Cubans who remained.
Cubans who opposed normalized relations have a right to be skeptical. After all, the Obama administration has conceded its policy is not intended to change the Castro regime but rather to empower the Cuban people to pursue democracy. Of course, it is difficult for the Cuban people to pursue democracy—even with relations normalized—if the Castro regime continues to imprison Cubans advocating for democracy.
Until Cubans enjoy the same rights my parents do, the gap between the United States and Cuba will never be completely bridged. That is why it is important that the Obama administration continue to insist on political reform and press the cause of freedom. If it does that, then I am optimistic that one day soon we will bridge the divide between our two nations.