Relations between the United States and Cuba have been stuck since the United States imposed a full economic embargo in 1962, and during the election season neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney signaled much desire to change the status quo. Yet while Americans have been looking elsewhere, significant change has come to Cuba. The communist government of the ruling Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, is in the midst of a slow experiment to promote economic entrepreneurship. Late last year, Cuba instituted reforms to its immigration policies that allow Cubans to travel abroad freely and allow those who have emigrated or fled to return home.
These changes, and the beginning of Obama's second term, create an unusual opportunity to acknowledge Cuba's gestures and respond in a substantive way. Rather than simply extend policies that, in five decades, have failed to dislodge the Castros, the Obama administration has a chance to drag US policy into the 21st century.
The Cuban-American population, which has historically opposed any loosening of US policy, is no longer monolithic. Supporting greater contact with friends, family, and the Cuban economy now animates a younger generation of Florida voters. Because of this trend, Obama — who performed nearly as well with Cuban-American voters as Romney — has more maneuvering room politically.
The first step would be to end the silly claim, reinstated by the Obama administration last summer, that Cuba remains a "state sponsor of terrorism." The administration argued that Cuba harbored members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It has, but the FARC and Colombia are now in negotiations; those peace talks are supported by the Obama White House in order to end a bloody civil war.
By depoliticizing the Cuba portfolio, the United States could then begin to lessen trade restrictions, starting with promoting cultural exchanges; ending the travel ban; and eventually allowing for trade in oil, gas, and other commodities. Over time, billions of dollars in new trade between the two nations will benefit both. This would include boosts to US farm companies while helping Cubans.
Direct relations would also further US national security and environmental interests; as Cuba opens up, other countries will sweep in to seek influence, as China has already done. Especially as Cuba increasingly promotes offshore drilling and other maritime exploration, the United States must improve communication with Havana. Currently, even though the United States and Cuba are separated by a narrow channel, the two countries have no bilateral communications to ensure safety standards for their mutual protection from oil spills.
Secretary of State John Kerry should make Cuba a focus of his first months in office. Unfortunately, his successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a son of Cuban immigrants who has opposed the administration's efforts to ease relations. Menendez will need to be convinced that he can help Cubans more by resetting American policy.
Absent military intervention, there are very few opportunities for a president to dramatically alter relations with a historic foe; Obama has taken such advantage of a disorientingly rapid liberalization by Burma's military rulers. Raul Castro's recent decision to lift travel restrictions on Cuban citizens is similarly momentous — and signals that the timing is ripe for a new diplomatic agenda with Cuba.