U.S. Policy toward Cuba

Delivered on the Floor of the United States Senate

Mr. President, last month during the vote on the omnibus bill we heard the beginnings of a discussion on the best way to encourage change in Cuba. Shortly thereafter several of my colleagues, including Senators Dorgan, Lugar, Dodd, and Enzi spoke about their bill, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which I am pleased to cosponsor. And last week President Obama announced an easing of U.S. policy toward Cuba--one that allows for, among other things, greater family travel and unlimited remittances to the island. These wise steps begin to undo decades of counterproductive policy toward Cuba. The President's similarly timed visits to Mexico and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad demonstrate a welcome and hopeful level of reengagement in the region--one in which we have many shared interests and challenges.

Yet the debate on U.S. policy toward Cuba raises many passions and heart felt concerns. While all of us want to see a more open and democratic Cuba, the means to reach that goal are often vigorously debated. I am under no illusions about the horrendous record of the Cuban regime regarding human rights and political freedom. The Castro government has regularly jailed those who oppose its rule or want even a semblance of political freedom. Many languish in inhuman conditions without trial or recourse. According to the State Department's most recent Human Rights Report on Cuba, at least 205 political prisoners and detainees were in jail at the end of 2008 and as many as 5,000 citizens, including 1,000 women, served sentences this year without being charged with a specific crime. Beatings and harassment of human rights activists and political dissidents by government-recruited mobs, police, and state security officials remain commonplace. Journalists continue to be denied the right to openly criticize their government without fear of reprisal. And domestic human rights groups are not even recognized or permitted to legally function. We all want this to change. It must change.

Yet for almost 50 years the United States has tried the same policy with Cuba, one of isolation, and it has failed. I wish that were not true, but it is. I believe sanctions can be an important foreign policy tool. Their use should be carefully considered on a case by case basis. Yet after almost half a century of a failed isolation policy in terms of Cuba, don't we owe it to ourselves and the Cuban people to rethink this issue? I am not arguing that we lift all sanctions against Cuba. The regime must begin to release its political prisoners and implement political reforms before we take any such steps. The Cuban government must listen to the brave voices of its own people such as Oswaldo Paya, who has collected thousands of signatures for a petition given to the Cuban government requesting greater political freedoms--a petition process that is in fact allowed for under the Cuban constitution.

But President Obama was right in beginning to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. Cuba is no longer a serious threat to the United States; we no longer need to think in black or white Cold War terms. Since that time, we have seen globalization, an unprecedented flow of information between people in different countries, and the emergence of many new countries seeking democracy. Why should the people of Cuba be held back from the benefits of this new world? There is already limited use of the Internet and cell phones on the island--but I bet if you ask the Cuban people, they would tell you they want more access to these links to the outside world, not less. President Obama's policy of allowing telecommunications licensing on the island should help foster such access to the outside world. We should replace the Castro regime with an open, democratic Cuba the same way we brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. We need to expand the contact of everyday Cubans with freedom, opportunity and people whose lives are inspired by our values.

Isolation is not the answer. An invasion is the answer--but not a military invasion; the invasion of openness and freedom and new ideas. It is not a Pollyanna-ish position to argue this. My mother was born in Lithuania. Lithuania, a Baltic nation, was under suppression by the Soviet Union after World War II, isolated, cut off from the world as was most of Eastern Europe. But then the day came when the conversation opened, when the doors opened, when the people of the Baltics and Eastern Europe could see the Western world and realize how much their lives had been denied by totalitarian rule. I think the same thing can happen in Cuba. We should not be closing the doors to Cuba. We should throw them wide open. I had some friends who recently went to Cuba, through Mexico, with a visa. They came back and said, "You know, they are still using oxen for power in their agriculture." Yoking oxen, in the 21st century, 90 miles offshore from the United States? If they knew and could see what modern agriculture could bring to them, if they could understand what freedom meant, even more, we would have a greater chance of bringing real change to Cuba. Earlier this year, Congress eased travel restrictions. President Obama has eased them further. The more Americans and Westerners move into Cuba, the more they will bring ideas and commerce and opportunity and change to Cuba. Isolation for 50 years has failed. Why would we cling to a failed policy? It is a poor country, a nation that struggles with natural disasters as well as poverty of its own creation and one that would be open to change and opportunity. I might also say that the embargo which we have imposed has hurt our chances to export food to Cuba, which is needed. We should open those opportunities in the hopes that commerce will not only feed people who are hungry but establish stronger relationships and a better understanding by the Cubans of what a free market economy could bring them. The U.S. policy of isolation strengthens the Castro dictatorship. If at a time when we should be opening the doors by closing them, we gave Castro, Fidel Castro, and his brother Raul excuses for the misfortunes that people realize in Cuba, we have an opportunity to change those things, and I certainly hope that we do.

It was interesting to me when the President of the United States went down for this Summit of the Americas, the biggest story that came out of it was the fact that he was not rude to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, that he actually shook his hand and took a book from him. Some of the cold warriors that I hear on television, the commentators just cannot get over that. They cannot imagine that we would change a foreign policy that we have had over the Bush administration years, a policy that sadly did not reach its intended goals of better relationships and better respect around the world.

President Obama is opening negotiations and conversations with countries around the world and creating an opportunity, an opportunity for new freedom, an opportunity for new strength, and a new image of the United States. It may trouble some of the cold warriors of years gone by who want confrontation and lack of communication, but that certainly does not serve the needs of the 21st century. I welcome this change that President Obama has brought to Washington. I welcome this opening of foreign policy in the hope that his approach and his image and status in the world will bring us to a safer place in the 21st century.

I yield the floor.