Last year, President Obama delivered the first step in his promise to reach out to the Cuban people and support their desire for freedom and self-determination. Premised on the belief that Cuban Americans are our best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba, the Obama administration lifted restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans. The pent-up demand for Cuban American contact with the island revealed itself: within three months of the new policy, 300,000 Cuban Americans traveled to Havana — 50,000 more than for all of the previous year. Experts estimate that over $600 million in annual remittances has flowed from the United States to Cuba in 2008 and 2009 and informal flows of consumer goods is expanding rapidly.
The administration’s new policy has the potential to create new conditions for change in Cuba. However, if U.S. policy is to be truly forward looking it must further expand its focus from the Castro government to the well-being of the Cuban people. Recent developments on the island, including the ongoing release of dozens of political prisoners, have helped create the right political moment to take action. The administration should institute a cultural diplomacy strategy that authorizes a broad cross-section of American private citizens and civil society to travel to the island to engage Cuban society and share their experiences as citizens of a democratic country. Reducing restrictions on people-to-people contact is not a “concession,” but a strategic tool to advance U.S. policy objectives to support the emergence of a Cuban nation in which the Cuban people determine their political and economic future.
The President has the authority to reinstate a wide range of “purposeful,” non-touristic travel to Cuba in order to implement a cultural diplomacy strategy. Under President Clinton, the Baltimore Orioles played baseball in Havana and in return the Cuban national team was invited to Baltimore. U.S. students studied abroad in Cuba and engaged in lively discussions with their fellow students and host families. U.S. religious groups provided food and medicines to community organizations, helping them assist their membership. However, in 2004, such travel was curtailed, severely limiting U.S. insights about the needs, interests and organizational capacities of community groups and grassroots organizations. Today, visitors traveling under an educational license, for example, number a meager 2,000 annually.