President Obama recently accomplished one of the specific campaign promises he made with respect to the U.S.’s Cuba policy. He awarded Americans open rights to send money to and visit family in Cuba. Of course, even this small step was met with criticism and attempts have already been made in Congress to try roll this policy back. But Obama has held his ground, threatening executive veto in order to make sure his policy remains.
Obama’s new policy restores the “people-to-people” contacts between the U.S. and Cuba that existed under the Clinton administration, reinstating the embargo exemptions for Americans traveling for humanitarian, religious and academic purposes that were barred under Bush. Also, more direct flights to Cuba will be permitted.
More academic and research travel will mean increased contact between U.S. academic communities and the new generation of students and faculty in Cuba, sparking active debate at a time when the country needs it. In the last years of the Clinton administration, Cuban colleges and universities enjoyed contacts with their counterparts in the U.S., and these new rules will restore them. And the new order makes it easier for religious organizations to fund travel to Cuba, a move that implies the Obama administration has a mature understanding of Cuban civil society.
Now that Obama has made his move, the Cuban government should rise to the occasion. Cuba should implement programs that are more open to academic connections, allowing individual applications by Cubans to undergraduate and graduate study in the U.S.
The question now is whether the governments of Cuba and the U.S. can maintain a positive course of engagement and manage the volume of “people-to-people” contacts, which is bound to increase. In any case, Obama should continue opening up the U.S. to Cuban society. Relations with Cuba have always been tricky, and the U.S.’s actions have not always produced reasonable responses from Cuba. But Obama has wisely broken from the habits of prior presidents, risen above domestic politics and put America’s greatest assets: its scholars, religious groups, and cultural figures – to work on bringing the two countries closer.