New Cuba policy looks forward, not back
President Obama's decision to begin normalising relations with Cuba will advance United States' interests and those of the Cuban people. The 11 million people of this island nation have waited far too long - more than half a century - to fulfil their democratic aspirations and build closer ties with the rest of the world in the 21st century.
Our new policy on Cuba reflects the reality that past policies - although well-intentioned - no longer suit today's situation. The president's announcement reflects a historic turning of the page on enmities born of a different era and towards a brighter and more promising future.
Early in his administration, the president took steps to ease restrictions on Cuban-American visits and remittances that opened new pathways for family reunification - and later expanded this to include religious, academic and cultural exchanges for all Americans.
Last week's decision builds boldly on those initial measures and will increase communications, commerce and travel between our two countries. The State Department will lead discussions to restore regular diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961 and re-establish an embassy in Havana. In our bilateral discussions, the United States will seek to advance cooperation on issues of mutual interest, including counter-narcotics, migration, combating trafficking in persons, the Ebola crisis, and shared environmental challenges.
The president has made clear that a critical focus of these actions will include continued strong support for improved human-rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba. The promotion of democracy supports universal human rights by empowering civil society and supporting the freedom of individuals to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly.
For these reasons, we welcome Cuba's decision to release more than 50 political prisoners, expand Internet access for Cuba's citizens, and allow better human-rights monitoring by the International Red Cross and United Nations. Our firm support for progress in these areas will be unwavering, and we will continue to implement programmes to promote positive change in Cuba.
Over time, the US effort to isolate Cuba began to have the reverse effect of isolating the United States, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, Cuban leaders used our stance as a source of propaganda, to justify policies that have no place in the 21st century. It has been an open secret that the relationship has been in a rut that benefits no one on either side. The time has come to cease looking backward and to begin to move forward in the interests of both freedom-loving Cubans and the United States.
What, specifically, has the president decided to do?
First, he has authorised US officials to expand travel, increase remittances and grow bilateral trade. To facilitate this and ensure proper oversight, the Treasury Department will also make banking easier and allow the use of US debit and credit cards in Cuba. In addition, it will strengthen the monitoring and transparency of financial flows between the United States and Cuba by allowing American financial institutions to open correspondent accounts at Cuban banks.
One effect of all of the changes will be to increase the ability of Americans to provide business training and other support for Cuba's nascent private sector, which already includes 500,000 employees. In this regard, the Commerce Department will ease current export limits on a variety of products that would help Cuban small businesses grow, such as construction firms, agricultural companies, automobile repair centres, and others.
Second, the president's decision will support new efforts to tear down the digital wall that isolates Cubans. The country has an Internet penetration rate of five per cent, among the lowest in the world. Prices are high, and services are limited. Under the new policy, we will permit the sale of technology that will begin to unleash the transformative effects of the Internet on the island.
Third, the president has ordered reforms in the application of US sanctions to Cubans in third countries.
Fourth, the president has asked the State Department to review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism to ensure that any such designation is guided entirely by the facts and law.
In the spring, President Obama will travel to Panama for the 2015 Summit of the Americas, where we are encouraging full participation by representatives of Cuban civil society. Meanwhile, the United States has welcomed home United States Agency for International Development subcontractor Alan Gross, who was wrongfully jailed in Cuba for more than five years, and also an American intelligence agent who had been imprisoned for two decades.
President Obama's announcement last week is forward-looking and emphasises the value of people-to-people relations, increased commerce, more communications and respectful dialogue.
n John Kerry is secretary of state, Penny Pritzker is secretary of commerce, and Jacob Lew is secretary of the treasury, all in the US Cabinet.