There are signs that change may finally be coming to Cuba, 50 years after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. In a major shakeup, Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother, fired several high-level officials last week. While Raúl did more to raise expectations than living standards in his first year as president, he may now be positioning the government to go beyond the tentative reforms so far introduced. Then again, he might merely be installing loyalists who share his view that the regime should keep a tight grip on society.
What's more certain is the need for change in Cuba. Last year's hurricanes cost the already poor island nation $10 billion, 20 percent of its GDP. The global economic slowdown has dampened tourism. The population of 11 million is shrinking, in part because of a housing shortage that's leading many families to have fewer children. Cuba's people, the lion's share of whom were born after 1959, face a future that promises little in the way of either prosperity or freedom.
Some American conservatives maintain that all this is reason enough for the United States to persist in its policy of ignoring Cuba diplomatically and sanctioning it economically. At least in principle, one could argue that the revolution is running out of steam and that regime change from within may finally be at hand. The problem is that this argument ignores Cuban reality. The country is not near the precipice of collapse. To the contrary, the intertwined party, government and military have matters well in hand. The population, ensured basic necessities along with access to education and health care, is neither inclined to radical change nor in a position to bring it about.
The American policy of isolating Cuba has failed. Officials boast that Havana now hosts more diplomatic missions than any other country in the region save Brazil. Nor is the economic embargo working. Or worse: it is working, but for countries like Canada, South Korea and dozens of others that are only too happy to help supply Cuba with food, generators and building materials. Those in Congress who complain about the "offshoring" of American jobs ought to consider that the embargo deprives thousands of American workers of employment.
The policy of trying to isolate Cuba also works—perversely enough—to bolster the Cuban regime. The U.S. embargo provides Cuba's leaders a convenient excuse—the country's economic travails are due to U.S. sanctions, they can claim, not their own failed policies. The lack of American visitors and investment also helps the government maintain political control.
There is one more reason to doubt the wisdom of continuing to isolate Cuba. However slowly, the country is changing. The question is whether the United States will be in a position to influence the direction and pace of this change. We do not want to see a Cuba that fails, in which the existing regime gives way to a repressive regime of a different stripe or to disorder marked by drugs, criminality, terror or a humanitarian crisis that prompts hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee their country for the United States. Rather, Washington should work to shape the behavior and policy of Cuba's leadership so that the country becomes more open politically and economically.
Fifty years of animosity cannot be set aside in a stroke, but now is the time for Washington to act. Much of the initiative lies with the new president. President Obama, could, for example, make good on campaign promises to allow Cuban-Americans to freely remit funds to relatives in Cuba and to visit them regularly, and could loosen travel restrictions for others as well. (Some of these measures can be found in legislation currently working its way through Congress.) Obama could also initiate technical contacts. Each country already maintains an "interests section," a small embassy by another name, in the other's capital. They also share information about weather. But they could resume exchanges on such common challenges as migration and drug interdiction, and initiate them on homeland security and counterterrorism.
Going beyond this and dealing with the basics of the embargo—or removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism—would likely require congressional approval. Current law, though, makes it almost impossible to take such steps. It requires that Cuba effectively become a functioning democracy before sanctions can be lifted. But it's precisely engagement that is far more likely to reform Cuba. Preconditions are an obstacle to effective foreign policy.
The Obama administration has a great opportunity to begin modifying U.S. policy before or during the Summit of the Americas, to be held in April in Trinidad. A new U.S. policy would not only increase U.S. influence in Cuba, but it probably would also be the single most powerful way in which Obama could improve the U.S.'s standing throughout the Western Hemisphere. The United States can engage with China and Russia, not to mention North Korea, Syria and even Iran. Surely it ought to be able to do so with Cuba.