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US view of Cuba is stuck in the 1960s

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended 50 years ago Sunday. There are still debates about the historical record, still attempts to gain full access to materials, and still disagreements about the consequences of the United States and the Soviet Union going to the brink over nuclear missiles and the small, relatively insignificant island. But the crisis mattered; its impact is still influential as it relates to US policy toward nuclear ambitions in Iran or North Korea today.

Since the crisis, the relationship between the United States and Cuba has remained static. Yet, as we were looking back at the 13-day standoff the past couple of weeks, Cuba raised a white flag, and we barely noticed. We should. Suddenly in 2012, Cuba is an issue once again.

On Saturday, Cuba announced it would now allow hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have illegally fled the country, many by raft, to return for visits. That announcement followed a groundbreaking Oct. 16 edict ending Cuba's exit permit program, effective January. The expensive and lengthy exit visa requirements are the reason why Cubans risk their lives getting onto boats to make their way to the United States.


A visa's demise reflects substantial changes in any nation's relationship with the world; Vietnam finally ended its program in 1997, a few years after the Soviet Union did the same. Cuba's move is also consistent with the slow economic and political reforms instituted by Raul Castro, who took over from an ailing Fidel in 2008.

It is safe to say that, with these two announcements allowing for the flow of Cubans and exiles back and forth to promote family reunions and financial benefits, the failed communist experiment in Havana is officially over.

The question now, for the United States, is whether policies toward Cubans will remain in a 1960s mindset. US isolationist policy, and its singular focus on the Castro brothers who have governed the nation for over 50 years, has been relatively unchanged; US presidents have come and gone, but the policy is the same.

US immigration rules fall under the Cuban Adjustment Act, more commonly known as the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. Essentially, Cubans who reach US soil are allowed to stay; those who are intercepted at sea are sent home.

It is a forgiving rule, given life and continuity by a conservative political sentiment that views Castro as the devil. It allowed the United States to present itself as a refuge for Cubans without inviting a massive influx of Cubans; boat travel is risky, and maritime interception efforts by US officials have been relatively successful. Only when huge numbers of Cubans overwhelmed the US capacity to keep them offshore, as in the 1980 mass migration involving 125,000 exiles in the the Mariel boatlift, was there any discussion about the unquestioning openness of US policy.


Today, that discussion begins anew. Certainly, the United States can limit incoming lawful visas by Cubans. But Cubans will begin to travel, making it more likely they will take "dry foot" routes (through Mexico or Canada) to the United States. And a legacy law, known as Spain's Law of Historical Memory, means that the descendants of those who fled Spain to Cuba a century ago possess dual passports. The United States does not require any visas from Spanish travelers.

The Florida Cuban exile vote, long a mainstay of Republican politics, is more complicated now as a younger generation sees its grandparents' obsession with Castro as needing an update. At the very time when the US-Cuba relationship should be a matter of real discussion (rather than just anti-communism platitudes), there is almost complete silence in the political space. Cuba 1962 is so much more settled.

The movement of people, including through immigration rules, is a powerful force compelling many foreign policy changes. Cuba's reforms will increase the ties between the nations; American constituencies tied to the past will be left fighting a relic. It is simply no longer a question of whether the United States is willing to assess its Cuba strategy, just when.


The winner of November's election will have no choice but to update US policy to the Cuba of 2012.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem