By Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Raul Castro has succeeded Fidel and is reining in the all-pervasive Cuban government

It is past time to change our policy toward Cuba. For over 50 years, the United States has been obsessed with the Cuba of Fidel Castro's time. So much so that many of the circumstances that animate our conversations and views of Cuba today seem to be drawn from the 20th century. They are a throwback to the days when Cuba was a menacing outpost of an aggressive Soviet Union. Admittedly, it's hard to forget the days of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. We forced the removal of those missiles, then sought to punish and bring down the Castro regime by a trade embargo (and some madcap covert schemes).

For over 49 years those policies have failed. And they are inappropriate for the Cuba of today. About 70 percent of Cubans were born after the original revolution. They are pressuring the state to get out of their way.

Since a chance meeting with Fidel Castro many years ago, I have had hours of conversation with him over many visits, including one a few weeks ago. Castro has overcome several bouts of serious illness. As he put it, "Nobody thought I would get through my illness, but here I am at work." And so he is, but he is playing a different role. The most critical change is that his brother, Raúl Castro, has succeeded him as president in a transition marked by a noteworthy degree of stability.

Fidel is certainly at work and active and still an inspiration for Cubans. They respect and admire him for establishing an excellent system of free healthcare; an improved educational system; and a relatively colorblind, multiracial society in which most of the institutionalized racism against blacks and mulattoes has been eliminated. They also take pride in the way he stood up to America.

He was teased a number of years ago that if he had been a slightly better baseball pitcher and made it to the major leagues, Cuba and the United States would not have had years of conflict. Castro's response was, "I was a good pitcher, but I am a great revolutionary." He is still involved, for as he has said, "Revolutionaries do not retire." But Fidel's role today is that of the senior statesman concentrating on the international stage, long a key interest for him, rather than the head of state on the domestic stage.

The driver for change in Cuba now is Raúl Castro. The pace of change will be, as he puts it, "without pause, but without haste." To implement his judgment that structural reforms are needed to revitalize Cuba's stagnant economy, he has become the principal architect in abandoning the all-pervasive role of the state and shifting a good part of economic activity to the private sector. Speech is freer. He has called on Cubans to openly air their opinions in the form of numerous town hall-style meetings. He has listened. Policies he announced have ultimately been refined and changed by the process.

He has eliminated excessive bans and regulations, encouraged productivity, and sought to make the government smaller and more efficient. This is a major change from Fidel's totally planned economy to a more market-oriented one, despite the forces of bureaucratic inertia and resistance. For the first time in over five decades, there are new rules that support the legitimization of the private sector. Free-market mechanisms have been embraced, such as self-employment, a new tax code, and liberalized rules on such things as home and auto ownership. Hundreds of thousands of licenses have been granted to Cubans to operate private businesses. A financing mechanism provides credit to would-be entrepreneurs.

Cubans finally have the right to sell and buy their homes. Many Cuban-Americans have been encouraged enough to accelerate the process by sending money to relatives. Cubans are now also allowed to purchase cellphones, DVDs, and other items that were once restricted. All these reforms are helping to change public attitudes; fewer young people want to leave. Not bad for a government that heretofore had followed a centralized communist economic model.

The church has also been positive. It has helped to negotiate the release of political prisoners, now significantly fewer. It has encouraged the move to free markets, providing counseling that reflects the words of the late Pope John Paul II when he called for "Cuba to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba."

The Cuban-American community in the United States has also changed. Many now believe the embargo should end and the travel ban lifted. This, too, reflects a generational shift. Younger Cuban-Americans, who now outnumber the aging Cuban exiles of the 1960s, have a different attitude. They think of Cuba not in terms of politics and ideology but of family and friendships. Using so-called gift parcels, they are supplying their families in Cuba with tools and other goods for use in small businesses.

President Obama, in tune with these changes, has sought a better relationship with Cuba. He has lifted Bush-era restrictions on family travel and remittances. Last year over 300,000 people took charter flights from Florida to Cuba. Many are from the younger generation, and some no doubt dislike the Cuban leadership and what it represents. But they consider family reunification and support to be their priority. They think that after 50 years, it is time to try something different with Cuba.

The question for Americans is how to relate to the new evolving Cuba. I believe there is wisdom in Henry Kissinger's view. He lived through the grim years as secretary of state, and had said: "It is better to deal straight with Castro. Behave chivalrously," and think in broader terms.

One step to improve our relationship -- and advantage America -- is to remove the restrictions on exports of agricultural products. All sectors of the U.S. economy would benefit by freeing commodity sales. It would increase our revenues by perhaps $300 million to $500 million a year. Food should not be seen as a weapon but as a way to build a better longer-term relationship between the two countries, as was shown by the experience between East and West Germany.

Our restriction is pointless anyway. Cubans have access to food through imports from countries like Vietnam and China. Our regulations are simply restricting the ability of our farmers and agribusinesses to trade with Cuba while competitors exploit the opportunities to take over the sales we would otherwise have. We don't hesitate to trade with other communist countries. We even offer them credit. It is not very sensible to worry over selling wheat to Cuba and putting that money into the pockets of American farmers. As for restricting travel to Cuba, we have allowed Americans to travel to Iran, China, and Russia.

There is every evidence, moreover, that when we have liberalized intercourse with closed societies, they have become more open, with greater freedoms for their populations. China is a case in point. For this reason, we should be willing to open up Internet access and allow Americans to travel to Cuba.

I recognize there remain serious political issues between Cuba and the United States. The Cubans have jailed Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was implementing a U.S. government democracy-building program, distributing computers, cellphones, and satellite communication technologies for nongovernmental organizations. The Cuban government interpreted this as a subversive activity and arrested him. This has now become a main obstacle to improving relations.

The Cuban government wants to have any humanitarian release of Gross matched by some degree of reciprocity. One possibility is that the United States would allow a recently released Cuban spy to serve out his next three years of parole in Cuba rather than in Florida. (He was one of five Cuban officers sent here in the 1990s to spy on anti-Castro militant groups. A release of all five is another possibility.)

Whatever the process, quiet diplomacy should be able to resolve such issues and inspire a more positive rapport. The main hurdle is political: A portion of the Cuban-American community takes a very hard-line view of the Castro government and remains a powerful political force in the key swing state of Florida. The attitude of the presidential candidates will be a good test of their vision and diplomatic skills.

We should not try to seal off Cuba from the American influence that has so profoundly changed much of the rest of the world. We cannot bully a country by starvation or deny its people the right to rejoin their families. We can move forward in our relationship with Cuba and still maintain American interests and values.


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