The Obama administration entered office 18 months ago promising change in U.S.-Cuba relations. Let me say up front: I admit that significant change is underway; I admit that the Cuban government hasn’t made it easy; I admit that the president has a lot on his plate; and I admit that the current political environment is not helping. I’m not naïve about government or how politics affect government; I know that change is hard to accomplish, that the government is hard to move—even for a president.
Nevertheless, performance has failed by a long shot to live up to expectations in changing U.S. policy toward Cuba. In particular, we are now approaching, for the second time under this administration, the beginning of another academic year during which opportunities to study abroad in Cuba will be closed to most Americans—not because of any action of the Cuban government, but rather of their own government. And in fact, changing this situation would not be hard at all. All it takes is repealing regulations put in place by the Bush administration in 2004, which significantly curtailed most academic travel to the island. Indeed, the administration has already repealed part of these regulations — those limiting family travel and remittances—and has suffered no negative political consequences for doing so. It’s hard to believe that there would be strong opposition to letting students go to Cuba, as they can to any other country in the world.
The administration has said that it would consider further actions depending on positive moves by Cuba. Such moves have now been made. The government has announced that it will free 52 political prisoners, and has begun doing so. On top of previous prisoner releases, this will result in freedom for all of the 75 dissidents rounded up without cause in 2003 and sentenced to long prison terms. When the Bush administration imposed the restrictions in 2004, the announcement was remarkably devoid of any serious rationale for taking that action at that time, but there was a reference to the 2003 arrests. If that was the cause of the restrictions, it is now being removed.
There is really no excuse for further delay. The administration should re-open academic travel to Cuba for the coming academic year.