President Obama has announced that he will abandon longstanding restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba from relatives living in the United States. That should be but a prelude to a complete re-evaluation of U.S. relations with Cuba, leading to the end of the economic embargo in place since 1962 and the restoration of diplomatic relations.
Americans with relatives in Cuba currently can travel to the island only once a year and only to visit close relatives. Other travel, including travel for academic research, requires a special license from the Treasury Department.
These restrictions are more silly than useful in any sense. Economic embargoes are popular among politicians who want to make a gesture of criticism toward odious regimes without actually starting an outright fight. But they end up hurting the people of countries who are forced to live under repressive regimes and dictatorships more than they hurt the leaders.
The embargo against Cuba provides an excellent example of how poorly embargoes work at the ostensible purpose of undermining foreign dictators or improving the lives of the people they rule. Since the embargo was imposed on Cuba, the island's dictator, Fidel Castro, has repeatedly blamed the embargo for the poverty and hopelessness that is the lot of so many Cubans, poverty brought on by his own rigidly ideological economic policies. If anything, instead of weakening Castro's iron grip on Cuba, the embargo has reinforced it.
Although President Obama has the authority to ease travel restrictions by executive order, it would take an act of Congress to life the economic embargo. Although a bipartisan group of 20 U.S. senators supports a bill to ease travel restrictions further and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for the appointment of a special envoy to Cuba, there is no pending legislation to lift the embargo and the president says he does not favor doing so at this time.
Some argue that the United States should not lift the embargo until the Cuban government agrees to hold democratic elections or makes measurable improvements in its deplorable human-rights record. One can understand the emotional appeal of such a position, but it is putting the cart before the horse. One of the best ways to encourage pressure from below against the regime in Cuba is to encourage travel and economic trade.