cuba-travelIt’s just 90 miles from Key West to Havana, but for the past 50 years you’d think the azure waters of the Gulf Stream have been so filled with man-eating sharks that no sane person would risk the journey. Sure, sharks are out there and have ended the dreams and lives of too many Cubans trying to flee their island’s government. But the real sharks blocking commerce and interchange between the two countries have been in Miami, Washington and Havana.

Now it looks like change is coming, and maybe soon. The Congressional Black Caucus traveled to Cuba recently and met with the Castro brothers, who both seemed eager for a thawing of the frosty relations between Cuba and the U.S. Perhaps more importantly, Barack Obama has said he’ll relax travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-American families, restrictions that have been in place for years but were severely tightened by the Bush Administration.

Many are hoping Obama will go further and eliminate the nearly 50-year-old economic embargo against Cuba. That may be too much to hope for, at least right away. But it seems plausible that he might at least follow his decision to remove travel restrictions on Cuban exiles with a move to open the doors — and floodgates — for all Americans to visit Cuba.

I covered Cuba for nine years and visited the island more than a dozen times as the Caribbean Correspondent for Cox Newspapers, corporate parent of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My impression is that nothing would do more to spark change in Cuba than an invasion of a million free-spending American tourists.

You can argue there’s already been an invasion by a million (closer to two million a year, in fact) European, Canadian and Latin tourists, who have made Cuba a top Caribbean destination in the two decades since Fidel Castro lost his billions in Soviet subsidies and turned to tourism to revive his communist island’s moribund economy.

But the key difference with Americans traveling freely to Cuba is that it would immediately cut away one of the legs that Castro has adroitly used to prop up his repressive regime for five long decades: his constant railing that Yanqui perfidy is the source of all Cuba’s problems. A flexible, open-minded U.S. administration willing to do something like allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba would leave Fidel nearly speechless. That, in itself, might be unimaginable to anyone who has ever attended one of his speeches, which in his hey-day routinely lasted four to six hours.

Unrestricted travel to Cuba for all Americans would inject millions into the Cuban economy. It’s true, as the hard-liners argue, that much of that money would go to Cuban state enterprises that run the island’s hotels, restaurants, taxi services and the like. But millions of average Cubans who subsist on paltry salaries that average less than $20 U.S. per month would manage to get their hands on a fair amount of that American windfall, too, and it would vastly improve their lives. When you’re living on $20 a month, an extra $10 in tips for guiding American tourists or selling them purloined cigars or whatever is a huge boost to your income.

The hard-liners, of course, argue that putting more money in the pockets of average Cubans would make them marginally more satisfied and less willing to confront their government and demand change and reform.

And it might.

I would argue it’s none of our business what form of government the Cubans follow. Cuba has no nuclear weapons, and while its military is one of the strongest in the Third World, it poses little direct threat to the U.S. or our interests.

Fidel is on the way out. He may live another decade, fueled by an insatiable ego and burning desire to cement his place in history, but the transition from his own imperial government has already begun, even if the first steps are halting and uncertain. A majority of Cuba’s population wasn’t even born when Fidel led his triumphant Revolution, and many of that younger generation are far more interested in Ipods, laptops and opportunity than in communist cant.

Raul Castro, long Fidel’s bloody enforcer, is no ideologue. He’s a pragmatist, and he hears the grumbling of the Cuban people. He knows they will not be satisfied living on salaries of $20 a month in perpetuity. He has stated as much, bluntly, in public speeches.

It’s time for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, a big change. American policy has been held captive by a tiny band of die-hards in Miami for far too long. It’s an outdated policy that has had a crystal-clear benchmark for success: The exiles claimed their hard line was the only thing that would bring Fidel down. They were wrong, and by their own standard the policy has been a miserable failure.

While the depth of the exiles’ hatred for Castro is understandable and even in some ways justified, it’s unwise to govern out of fear or anger. It’s better to govern out of clear-headed common sense. Cuba is no threat to us. The embargo gains us nothing. Get rid of it.

Link: White House Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy

Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.