History occurs in two ways: across long periods of slow-moving, apparently meaningless, events, or sometimes, in gut-wrenching cataclysms. Change occurs in both instances. Cuba today presents a moment in history when both types of change are taking place, some there and some here at home.
Fifty years ago, on January 1, 1959, a small band of insurgents led by Fidel Castro toppled the Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In the ensuing years, the island nation just 90 miles off our southern shore became a flash point in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, at one point even leading the two countries to the brink of World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During those years, with the imposition of a trade embargo and repeated confrontations between Washington and Havana, Cuba also became a powerful domestic political issue in the United States, especially in presidential elections. The Cuban-American community shaped U.S. policy toward Cuba, and thwarted many efforts over the years to alter or remove some of the barriers between the two countries.
But the world has changed. The Cold War is over. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Most of the vestiges of the decades-long confrontation with communism have disappeared. We have relations with China and Vietnam, and we even talk with North Korea, another nation with which we fought a Cold War—driven conflict. In South Florida, third- and fourth-generation Cuban Americans are altering the political landscape, yearning for the opportunity to visit their ancestral homeland and becoming less dogmatic about demanding a return to the pre-1959 conditions in Cuba. Pro- reconciliation candidates are not automatically defeated in Florida anymore, and even previously anti-Castro organizations such as the Cuban American National Foundation have adopted a more conciliatory tone than in the past. In Cuba, Fidel Castro's grip on power has diminished since a serious illness in 2006, and his brother Raúl now runs the country on a day-to-day basis. A younger generation of government officials occupies many important positions, and it is believed there is a growing contingent of people inside government who want to see Cuba become a more modern country.
We believe it is time to end the trade embargo and open the doors of Cuba to Americans. We don't gloss over the widespread and justified condemnation of some of Cuba's domestic policies that have limited political freedoms and human rights. But after 50 years of isolating Cuba to try to achieve change there, we think it's time to try something else, and we believe that opening up the island to American visitors, and thus our influence, will help produce the kind of changes we want much quicker than any other policy.
Our writers on this subject, Julia Sweig, Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande, point out some realities. Kornbluh's and LeoGrande's history documents that the U.S. government maintained back-channel contact with Fidel almost uninterrupted through 2000. Sweig argues that if we impose preconditions, especially in the realm of Cuba's domestic policies, for any renewal of our bilateral relationship with Cuba, it will only continue to strengthen the hard-liners on the island. Those two seemingly separate points add up to one conclusion: let's take the talks out of the back rooms and negotiate a new beginning with our neighbor. Now is the time. The good people of Cuba have been punished long enough by the policies of their government and our government.