Even before his inauguration, President Obama promised to improve relations with Cuba. He has since taken steps to let Cuban Americans travel freely to the island and send more remittances. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has authorized talks with Cuban officials and opened the door for Cuba's possible return to the Organization of American States.
Yet many in Congress, the academic and business communities want to go further, faster. They've called on Obama to lift the ban on travel by all American citizens and end trade restrictions altogether.
Officials of the administration are wary of yielding to this pressure. Why? Two reasons.
Obama has made future steps contingent on something positive occurring in Cuba: release of political prisoners, freedom of travel or freedom of speech -- signs of an opening toward democratic change.
The grass-roots foundations of freedom -- civil society, trade unions and individual enterprise -- are routinely squashed by the juggernaut of the Cuban state. The communist regime deadens the lives of millions of Cubans, leaving them apathetic, isolated and devoid of hope.
Cuba's regressive government controls 90 percent of all economic activity. The cupola of the communist regime, not the people or the market, calls every shot and reaps the lion's share of benefits.
The 1962 embargo has been substantially modified over time. The United States now sells hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of food on a cash-and-carry basis. Remittances from the United States add hundreds of millions more and are certain to grow. Lifting of restrictions on telecommunications will allow freer communications, if the Cubans so desire. Two million foreign tourists bask annually in Cuba's sun while the majority of Cubans subsist on less than $20 a month. More than $1 billion in U.S. trade and remittances has thus far bought a goose egg's worth of liberalization and human-rights changes.
Would additional billions accomplish any more without a profound structural, democratic transition in Cuba?
In 2009, the partial embargo serves two purposes. It's still a leveraging point for bargained change in U.S.-Cuba relations. Second, it represents the moral divide between liberty and repression, between dictatorship and democracy.
So far, the Cuban leadership has been unresponsive to Obama's overtures. For Fidel Castro, venomous as ever, serious dialogue on human rights and democracy is tantamount to the United States accepting ''the whip and yoke'' of slavery. The same old mindset, the familiar intransigence threatens to stymie hopes for improved relations.
The Cuba embargo is like a wall, starkly demarcating two opposed ways of thinking. It should have fallen in 1989 or in the 1990s as the rest of Latin America and much of the world moved to democracy.
It can still quickly disappear once a dissenter like Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet walks out of prison, when blogger Yoani Sanchez is free to write and travel without hindrance and when a humble Afro-Cuban cane-cutter like Jorge Luis Garcia Pérez Antúnez is able to speak his mind without fear of retribution and imprisonment. In the end, Cuba's hope for change centers on Havana, not Washington.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at Heritage.
First appeared in the Miami Herald