To Cuba and the U.S. — Live Long and Negotiate

February 27, 2015

When the U.S. and Cuba met in Washington today for their second round of talks on reestablishing diplomatic relations, we were all thinking about Leonard Nimoy. The iconic actor who played Spock in the Star Trek television and movie franchise died today at age 83.

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock explains why Captain Kirk was going to negotiate with the Klingons:

Captain Spock: Last month, at the behest of the Vulcan ambassador, I opened a dialogue with Gorkon, Klingon chancellor of the High Council. He proposes to begin negotiations at once.

Admiral Cartwright: Negotiations for what?

Captain Spock: The dismantling of our star bases and outposts along the Neutral Zone, an end to nearly 70 years of unremitting hostility which the Klingons can no longer afford.

If centuries into an imagined future, adversaries will still be sitting down to talk about ending their hostilities, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Cuba and the U.S. ended their second round of negotiations without an agreement on opening embassies or the other measures required for reconnecting our severed diplomatic relations.

There is, after all, a long list of issues dividing the two governments, and not a lot of trust after decades of hostilities and suspect motives bringing them together.

Even after the exceptional elegance of the December 17th announcement — the simultaneous addresses by Presidents Obama and Castro, the release of prisoners, even the convergence of Jewish, Catholic, and Santeria holidays — both countries have doubts.

Cuba is yet to be convinced that President Obama’s diplomatic outreach constitutes more than a soft power expression of our historic regime change policy. The United States, for its part, sees Cuba as unwilling to make concessions to achieve a deal, which the Cuban government views as an intrusion on its national sovereignty.

The agenda laid out in advance of the second round of talks, as reported by the Washington Post, was to be “narrowly focused on opening embassies and on putting in place a framework for separate bilateral talks on various issues, including human rights and a new civil aviation agreement that will allow commercial air traffic between the two countries.” But, this agenda couldn’t be read at face value.

The real sticking point is Cuba’s false and flawed designation as a nation that is a state sponsor of terrorism. As the New York Times reported, “Cuban officials say they cannot envision opening a formal embassy in the United States while their country remains on the terror list.”

Cuba’s terror list designation has stopped U.S. banks from providing commercial banking services to its Interests Section and consulates. As a practical matter, Cuban officials say that they cannot operate an embassy without a checking account.

In fact, the terrorist list is a drag on all of Cuba’s dealings in the global economy and a regulatory risk to every financial institution processing its transactions.

The State Department, in trying to keep the talks on track to smooth President Obama’s sailing into the upcoming Summit of the Americas gathering, offered a somewhat fanciful way out for the negotiators. As a senior State Department Official told reporters this week “It would be very easy to restore diplomatic relations if they would not link those two things.”

Paradoxically, the hardliners who oppose restoring relations with Cuba are also the biggest supporters of keeping the debate focused on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, which several tried to do in comments orchestrated this week.

For example, Senator Bob Menendez, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a stern and seriously-worded letter to Secretary Kerry admonishing the administration not to remove Cuba from the list until Joanna Chesimard, a U.S. fugitive granted political asylum in Cuba, is returned to the U.S. (something Cuba has promised not to do).

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, at a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called Cuba “a clear and present danger to the United States,” and demanded that the U.S. keep Cuba on the State Sponsors list.

At the same time, the U.S. has its own list of issues — ending travel restrictions on our diplomats, removing the cordon of Cuban police who surround our Interest Section in Havana, expanding the limits on our staff and the like — it wants to see resolved, too.

This afternoon, the talks ended neither in breakthrough nor breakdown but with claims of progress and promises for more discussions at an unspecified date. Reuters reported, however, that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “I do think we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas.”

When asked to explain why Captain Kirk was sent by the Federation to negotiate with its worst enemy, the Klingons, Spock quotes what he calls an old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.”

To make a deal before going to Panama in April, both sides are going to have to concede something — and at the highest levels.

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It’s time to throw mud and misunderstanding at U.S. travelers to Cuba

February 20, 2015

As more high-profile delegations from the U.S. Congress and the business community visit Cuba, critics of President Obama’s Cuba opening are ramping up their anti-travel campaign. Those who are doing the work and making the trips know exactly what the hardliner’s intentions are.

This weekend in Regla, an Afro-Cuban community outside Havana, we had a conversation with Alexey Rodriguez and Mágia Lopez, two renowned hip-hop artists, and three Members of the U.S. Senate who had come with us to get a better understanding of Cuba.

Engaging with the Senators in his living room, Alexey said that the value of these exchanges “is that it helps us find a Cuba inside we didn’t know was there.” The journeys by outsiders, especially Americans, bring ideas and perspectives that help sharpen his understanding of what is missing from his life in Cuba and what he can do to fill it in.

Alexey and Mágia use their recordings and concerts to evoke discussions in Cuba about racism in areas like policing, or in the writing of Cuba’s history where acts of violence against Afro-Cubans are unacknowledged, or contributions by them are airbrushed out.

If you didn’t know that the founders of Obsesion, like other artists in Cuba, push the frontiers of expression through their music, despite Cuban restrictions which are real, we’re not surprised. The folks who oppose travel don’t want Americans seeing that part of Cuba for themselves.

On our trip, we and Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar, and Warner had honest and direct exchanges with officials from Cuba’s foreign ministry. But we didn’t stop there. We always try to triangulate the Cuban reality; so, over the weekend, we also talked to leaders of the Jewish community and the Catholic Archdiocese, met Cubans in their homes, had exchanges with small business owners who are earning their living independent of the Cuban state, and got exposed to the thinking of people who are trying to change how they live and work in the Cuban system acting from within.

These conversations are not just essential, powerful really, for their own sake. They also expose as myth the notion perpetuated by hardline supporters of the status quo, that Cuba can be neatly divided between supporters of the communist state and political dissidents, and that no other Cubans or Cuban perspectives exist.

We have met Cuban dissidents on the island and here in the United States. We know many to be good, decent, and brave people. We also know that Cuba’s government reacts strongly to those Americans who see dissidents when they visit.

We also know that dissidents are nearly anonymous on the island, and that none of them are able to speak for all Cubans. In a nation as diverse and complicated as theirs, no one could.

And yet, those who want to keep using American sanctions to squeeze Cuba are perpetuating the myth that only political dissidents have the standing to speak for Cubans in an effort to discredit those who visit Cuba and reach beyond them to a broader community of witnesses to the Cuban reality.

Just as we got home, there was a poignant and ultimately sad story about the organization of Cuban political dissidents known as The Ladies in White. They were formed by the wives and family member of dissidents rounded up in 2003. A video had just been released, as the Miami Herald reported, showing a large group of Ladies in White members booing Alejandrina García de la Riva, co-founder of the group, and screaming ‘Down with traitors!’ for disagreeing with the group’s direction under the leadership of Berta Soler.

Upon seeing the video, sixteen original members of the group likened de la Riva’s treatment to an “act of repudiation typical of communist behavior” and called upon Soler to step down. The Miami Herald’s columnist, Fabiola Santiago, said the group appeared to be disintegrating, which she and others blame, in part, on financial support The Ladies in White receive under regime change programs underwritten by the U.S. government.

This is one risk that comes when Washington decides who ought to be cast in the roles of representing the real Cuba and pays people to play the part. Real Cubans are visible all over the island. You only have to go there to find them without being distracted by the outsiders shouting from the sidelines who hope you don’t.

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Valentine’s Day Edition: (Almost) Everyone “HEARTS” Reforms

February 13, 2015

Two big changes have taken place since President Obama decided to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and reduce restrictions on the right of Americans to travel and trade with Cuba.

In just the last few weeks, the forces of reform have gotten bolder and bigger, while the opponents are looking smaller by comparison and, if we say so ourselves, considerably more weird (really).

In the U.S. Congress, legislation was introduced this week by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to repeal the trade embargo against Cuba — leaving human rights provisions of the law intact — with bipartisan support.

Organizations like the National Farmers Union, trade associations for farm commodities, leaders in the agriculture industry, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are all supporting efforts to lift the embargo and boost the sale of food to Cuba, a position warmly supported by U.S. farmers.

Governors, including Jay Nixon of Missouri and Andrew Cuomo of New York, and state businesses are lining up for trips to investigate business opportunities on the island. On behalf of Empire State citizens, including more than 74,000 Cuban Americans, Cuomo called Cuba “America’s newest economic partner,” and said “let us develop the relationship, let us open up the markets and let us get opportunities for New York companies,” in his State of the State Address.

Courage points go to the New Jersey business leaders who will visit Cuba in April despite opposition from their state’s senior Senator Bob Menendez, who turned up his nose at the Obama reform breakthrough, saying “I think it stinks.”

Businesses like Netflix and JetBlue are taking advantage of the opening, which in turn benefits Cubans by offering new sources of income, contact with Americans, and profits for small businesses.

The six public opinion surveys we’ve covered since the December 17th announcement – by the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, CBS News, Pew Research, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News, and the Associated Press — show strong support nationally and among Cuban Americans for diplomatic recognition and, importantly, lifting the embargo itself.

This is great momentum. As we report below, the enthusiasm for the policy — and the prospects for what normal relations could bring — is shared by Cubans, especially Cuban youth, who are joyful about the changes and are carrying a torch of hope for a better future.

But not everyone has sent off flowers or boxes of candy to the White House. In fact, there are two Members of Congress who replaced their Valentine’s Day card to the President with a letter bursting with “dismay and outrage”!

What made Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen so mad? Was it the upsurge in travel? The new delegations looking for business? Are they dismayed and outraged because some Cubans could have access to “House of Cards” when the thirteen episodes of Season Three become available on February 27th?

No.

It is this vexing question –“Why Did Administration Help Cuban Spy Artificially Inseminate Wife?” — to which Mr. Goodlatte, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman emeritus of the Foreign Affairs Committee, are demanding answers.

They refer to one of the lovelier sidebars of the story about what had happened while the deal for diplomatic relations was negotiated in secrecy over 18-months; or, as one newspaper headlined it, “How artificial insemination conceived a new era in US-Cuba relations.”

This decision by the U.S. government to give Adriana Perez, wife of convicted spy Gerardo Hernandez, a chance to have a child while she waited for her long-imprisoned husband to come home, boosted confidence in the diplomacy that ultimately yielded freedom for a CIA asset, 53 Cuban political prisoners, and Alan Gross.

As if it was timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day, their letter to Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels, Jr. asks: What statute of regulation authorizes the U.S. government to facilitate an artificial insemination in this manner? They ask who submitted the request and who approved it? They ask if there were precedent for “this sort of arrangement?” Who paid for it? And – ewwww – “To where was the specimen sent and who delivered it?”

In addition to proving these guys are no fun, and against the backdrop of meaningful evidence that the momentum behind Cuba policy reform is growing, it speaks volumes that these two hardliners had nothing more urgent in mind than coming out against an intended pregnancy by a woman in Cuba who just wanted to have a family.

While serious issues around human rights and much more are yet to be resolved, if the opponents of normalization have been reduced to asking, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” you’d have to say, we reformers are on a roll.

Besos Y Abrazos.

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Obama’s Policy Reforms: The Congressional Counteract Begins

February 6, 2015

Opponents of President Obama’s diplomatic opening with Cuba offered a somewhat exotic argument in congressional hearings they staged this week.

They said U.S. diplomats engaged in the secret negotiations should have consulted Cuban dissidents who support U.S. sanctions before the U.S. and Cuba agreed to a process for removing them. In other words, give a minority of Cuban citizens veto power over a change in U.S. policy we already knew they didn’t want and wouldn’t like. [It doesn’t take a Freudian scholar to suggest the legislators wanted to be consulted themselves, but that’s a discussion for another day.]

Senator Marco Rubio explored this concept with a panel of dissidents who had come to Washington to testify at the hearings he called to denounce the new U.S.-Cuba policy.

First, he asked if “all four of you agree that it would be a mistake to move forward on these policies without direct consultation and step-by-step partnership with civil society and the democratic opposition on the island?”

After a puzzled silence, Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of the Ladies in White, disagreed and responded by asking:

“If I understand you, it’s that the American government has to ask or talk with us for each step it takes. Is that what you mean?”

RUBIO: No, my question is, would it be a mistake to move forward on changes with — with — with policy towards Cuba without direct and ongoing consultation with civil society and the democratic opposition on the island?

Unpersuaded, Ms. Leiva responded, “I still see it the same way.”

He tried a similar approach with Berta Soler, the current leader of the Ladies in White.

RUBIO: My final question, Ms. Soler, you’ve met President Obama before, correct?

SOLER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): That’s correct.

RUBIO: And I believe it was in November of 2013 or 20…

SOLER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Yes, correct.

RUBIO: At that time, did President Obama indicate to you that if any changes — policy towards Cuba would first be consulted with groups like yourselves? Like the Ladies in White?

SOLER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): No, that – that’s not really the way it was. I’m actually just another woman, another Cuban woman. There’s no reason for a government to count on me for any type of opinions and things like that.

Oh snap.

Ms. Soler’s answer — no, it didn’t happen that way — was not the response Senator Rubio was looking for. But the advice that followed would be well-taken for someone considering a run for the presidency.

At another juncture, Mr. Rubio asked the panel if they all supported a continuation of the Helms-Burton program that gives financial assistance to dissidents in Cuba, some of whom benefit from U.S. support and still denounce the Obama policy.

To his apparent surprise, two of the witnesses — Miriam Leiva and Rosa María Paya — didn’t agree with him on that question either.

LEIVA: The problem is that a great budget has been destined to this goals and most of them, most of the money, hasn’t gone directly to the — to the opposition and the problem is, again, that the Cuban government says that we are mercenaries, we are paid by the American imperialists or the American government and we have been taken to prison because of that.

PAYA: Yeah, I think that if the government of the United States were to assess all the horrific rules of the Cuban government, that’s not going to be a good for our people.

The fact that these programs backfire isn’t news to Cuban dissidents (or, for that matter, Alan Gross).

There were other excursions into humor by the curiously un-self-aware Senators.

For example, while some of the Committee members were on the Senate floor voting, Senator Bob Menendez expressed his regret “that so many of our colleagues can’t be here because this is the part of Cuba that members need to hear,” a strange comment from someone who opposes travel to Cuba by Senators — and all other Americans — where they could hear from a cross-section of Cubans directly.

Then, there was Rubio’s unintended salute to the Obama policy, who closed the hearing by saying: “If there’s a silver lining in all this it is that for the first time, certainly in my time in the Senate, and probably in a decade, when something is going on in Cuba now, a human rights abuse, any sort of outrage, it now is news in the United States.”

We can laugh at Senators’ mistakes, and we do. But, despite increasing evidence that the American public supports the reforms, there’s no assurance the Congress will protect or build on them. What opponents are doing is pretending that Cuba can be divided into supporters of the Cuban government (“the commies”) and a monolithic bloc of Cuban dissidents who want the current policy to remain in place to avoid rewarding conditions that violate their rights – as if no one else in Cuba exists.

In fact, Cuba’s dissidents are divided. They have little support and are largely unknown in Cuba, but in the U.S. they are presented as the only ones who should determine Cuba’s future. Thanks to Cold War myopia and the U.S. travel ban, most Americans, many journalists, and plenty of undecided Members of Congress have no idea that there are people throughout Cuba working within the system and looking forward to the time when reduced hostilities between their country and the U.S. makes their lives better.

This battle is not yet over.

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Cuba Reforms: Hope versus the Subcommittee of Many Syllables

January 30, 2015

The writers at West Wing would never let this into a script.

Next Tuesday, the first hearing on President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba takes place in …wait for it… the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues.

That’s more syllables than even Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke could handle. But, the panel’s chairman, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, must think he is up for the job (or maybe this job).

Senator Rubio, a big fan of travel and trade with China, supports tightening sanctions and cancelling negotiations with Cuba’s government due to its human rights policies.

Cuba hearings on Capitol Hill are normally cringe-worthy affairs dominated by hardliners backed by handpicked crowds, with moderates of both parties absent or silent, and with a few progressives checking in to remind everyone that policy didn’t work and never would.

This time could be different. Rubio, who strenuously opposes the diplomatic breakthrough, will not be peering down at the witnesses alone, even with all the prerogatives that come with banging his chairman’s gavel.

His panel has Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican Senator from Arizona, who just introduced bipartisan legislation to repeal all restrictions on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.

Senator Tom Udall – a cosponsor of the Flake bill, who joined the delegation that brought Alan Gross home from Cuba – sits on the Democratic side of the dais (he was chairman of the subcommittee when it had a much shorter name).

The presiding Democrat is Senator Barbara Boxer, who wrote about her first visit to Cuba in 2002 with CDA’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba campaign, in this column in which she endorsed the Obama reforms.

In sum, this hearing – in the Subcommittee of many syllables – offers the hopeful prospect of balance, a real departure from hearings held in the past (much like the policy itself).

We’re not naïve, but this is indicative of a different mindset emerging on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress are clearly energized by increases in public support for diplomatic relations with Cuba – by the influential agricultural coalition that wants Congress to end the embargo – by businesses large and small eager to trade with Cuba – and by leaders like Governor Cuomo who seek to champion the cause of expanding trade. There’s even a bipartisan coalition for modernizing the policy in the U.S. House!

They may also feel bolder because both countries appear to be keeping their heads in the talks on diplomatic recognition. U.S. and Cuban negotiators got a nice shout-out from the New York Times this morning for being focused on the task – despite the distractions of domestic politics and the temptation to revert to divisive rhetoric, given the lack of trust with which each country eyes the motives of the other.

What does this mean for Tuesday?

Even if conflict and caterwaul resound during the first hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues, hope could drown it all out.

The hope of José Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident, quoted by the Times saying he has “reassessed his early concern that normalization of relations would embolden the Cuban government and hurt the cause of those who have been pressing for democratic reforms.”

The hope of Manuel Valdes, a young Cuban, who told NBC News, “I want to say to the good people of the States that finally we are not supposed to be enemies. I never felt that we are enemies, not at all, but our disagreeing politics, or political systems, pushed us to feel that way, and finally, that’s not happening anymore.”

The hope of Jim Donaldson, an American triathlete, who experienced one of the best examples of the benefits of engagement ever, “At the awards ceremony, a couple of Americans had won the juniors race, and they played the American national anthem…It was pretty exhilarating to hear the US national anthem played in Cuba.”

In a battle between the Subcommittee of many syllables and American athletes singing the Star Spangled Banner in Cuba with their hands over their hearts, who would you bet on?

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Obama’s Cuba Policy & the Taming of the Shrill

January 23, 2015

Photo: White House

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening, President Obama devoted 127 words to his new policy on Cuba.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.”

In a passage lasting just a minute, he stated publicly that our country was abandoning our failed regime change policies, he prodded Cuba to open up politically, he invoked Pope Francis’s blessing, and he welcomed Alan Gross home.

Give the man his due — this paragraph packed a lot of punch. We had little time to celebrate or savor this historic change in direction. The following morning, diplomats representing the U.S. and Cuba sat down and began talking about not just migration issues, but the mechanics of normalizing diplomatic relations and the enduring differences we have on human rights.

The accelerating pace of change around his Cuba policy reforms feels remarkable. It “only” took us six decades of failure to get here. He announced the decision to normalize relations just five weeks ago. The new regulations to implement parts of the new policy have been out for eight days. More important, the President’s decision to go big on Cuba policy – and to disregard his strongest critics – is paying off with the American people.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, his public approval is at its highest point in more than a year. Sixty percent of those polled nationally – but also 66% of those 18-34, 65% of Hispanics, 58% of white voters, 51% of those living in the south, even 41% of Republicans answering the survey – support what the president has done. Presidents are never bigger than when they are the vital centers of action in our public life.

Perhaps that is why his sternest critics seem so small by comparison. While they are still in a position to make trouble for the policy – using budget bills to reverse reforms and staging hearings to discredit diplomacy – they are heading in a direction where it is increasingly easy to disregard what they say.

We are not talking about political stunts at the margin, like when the New Jersey Legislature expressed “Profound Disagreement” with the President’s breakthrough, or Senator Lindsey Graham promised to block funds for an embassy that is already standing. Those acts play at the margins.

What we are talking about is hardliners like Senator Marco Rubio, whose response to the Cuba “thaw” has left a trail of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Like, for example, when he sent a letter to President Obama in early January demanding that diplomatic talks in Havana be canceled because he believed that Cuba wasn’t following through on the promise to free 53 political prisoners. Then, a couple days later, Cuba released the dissidents.

Or when, citing human rights concerns, he said he would block the appointment of an ambassador to Cuba, even though he had recently voted to confirm the U.S. ambassador to China.

Or that time he questioned the legality of the President using his regulatory authority to loosen restrictions on travel and transactions in Cuba, even though President Bush had used his presidential powers to tighten restrictions on travel.

And it’s not just Senator Rubio – each time the hardliners criticize the President for changing the policy, they assert that he’s been snookered by the Castros when it comes to human rights. Yet, on Friday morning when Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson met with dissidents in Havana after wrapping up her meetings with counterparts from the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Berta Soler, who’s been lionized in the United States by the hardliners, didn’t even attend. Why wouldn’t she demonstrate the respect of attending a meeting with the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Cuba in 38 years? Because she didn’t approve of the other activists who had been invited.

Our country has spent six decades fighting and refighting the Cold War in Cuba. The President made a courageous decision to protect the national interest – to do right by the Cuban people and the American people – by changing direction. This is understandably destabilizing to people – in the heart of the diaspora community, and among political dissidents in Cuba – who became invested decades ago in seeing things only one way.

Not everyone agrees with what President Obama has done. Many of those who don’t are trying to find their voice in a very demanding time. And the others? There is a saying around Washington that the only thing worse than being wrong is being irrelevant. It’s a calamity when you’re both. Read the rest of this entry »


Cuba, the U.S., and Obama’s State of the Union

January 16, 2015

When President Obama speaks before a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday night, his State of the Union Address could be unlike any we have ever heard, should he address U.S.-Cuba relations.

In his 1898 message to Congress, President McKinley justified U.S. intervention in the Spanish-American War as “the interests of humanity [and] the duty to protect the life and property of our citizens in Cuba,” and also referred to the battle in Guantanamo Bay, “where it had been determined to establish a naval station.”

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt said because “Cuba lies at our doors, and whatever affects her for good or for ill affects us also,” the U.S. government had inserted a provision, the Platt Amendment, into the Cuban Constitution giving us a veto power over Cuban affairs. “We took the ground that Cuba must hereafter have closer political relations with us than with any other power.”

In his 1961 State of the Union Address, President John Kennedy asserted the Cold War right of the United States to prevent “Communist domination in this Hemisphere.”

Two decades later, it was President Reagan, delivering his State of the Union Address, promising “those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya, we will act with firmness.”

But, the ideas embodied in those speeches lost their resonance long ago. Our foreign policy is no longer guided either by Manifest Destiny or the conditions of Cold War. Because he has changed the policy, President Obama can now reframe how his State of the Union speech addresses Cuba, and how his successors do so as well.

This policy is different because it is no longer driven exclusively by ideology – there is a case for calling it conservative – but it is certainly practical, pragmatic, and already more effective.

Because the goal is sending more visitors to the island to exchange ideas with the Cuban people, the Obama policy reduces paperwork barriers to travel, and extracts the bureaucracy from deciding whether U.S. travelers should settle their hotel and bar bills using cash or credit cards.

Because the goal is boosting the access of Cubans to information, the policy says that it is no longer necessary to ask the Federal government for a license so travelers can bring thumb drives, laptops, or cellphones to Cuba as gifts.

When the goal is promoting human rights, the Obama policy reached the common sense conclusion that it was the presence of diplomacy – not its absence – that would help persuade Cuba to release 53 political prisoners from its jails and enable both countries to swap spies, and bring Alan Gross back to his family and his home.

What Obama has done – which his predecessors didn’t and somehow couldn’t – is to open a considerable amount of political space for actors other than government officials and public servants to do the hard but necessary work of bringing Cuba and the United States closer together.

Many Cuban Americans have labored bravely for decades in a hostile environment in which the expression of moderate views was met with disapproval — and in some cases with force — from bullies and extremists. Their hands are now stronger in the effort to change the conversation in their community because they now have the President leading the charge as well as lots and lots of allies.

By changing the policy and setting a new tone tone at the top, the President has encouraged a more diverse, democratic, and decent debate. The government no longer holds an effective monopoly on who can engage with civil society in Cuba. Cuban American families can now be joined by pastors and rabbis, ball players and marine scientists, artists and experts, in conducting the kinds of meaningful exchanges that bring societies together in ways that diplomats (and certainly Beltway Contractors) cannot.

As Fulton Armstrong reminds us, “the ties between the American and Cuban people can be a very powerful engine for truly normal relations.” This is our chance to make those ties even stronger.

As the coalition expands to include the business community, farmers, businesses and individuals with legacy claims for compensation for property that was expropriated, and lots of others with reason to work on behalf of an open policy, the momentum favoring reform will increase substantially.

Diplomacy remains essential – as illustrated by the trip that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will undertake next week – for the resumption of diplomatic relations, the opening of our two embassies, and the expression of our disagreements on human rights and political issues, and much more.

We hope the President talks about these changes, as he should, but that he also prepares the public and the Congress for the road ahead.

The two countries and the two publics cannot mend this historically broken relationship overnight. As our friend Rafael Hernandez has written, “the main weakness Cuba needs to overcome is not its lesser physical power, but its siege mentality. The United States, on the other hand, needs to overcome its sense of super power arrogance vis-à-vis a small neighbor. Most counterproductive policies on both sides, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to Cuba’s Internet restrictions, have been the consequence of these weaknesses.”

Even on our best days, this will take time. The instinct to provoke – by hardliners on both sides of the Florida Strait – will remain and even grow more desperate, as the provocateurs increasingly find themselves living in a bygone age. Tuesday night offers the President a unique platform for giving power and voice to the new ways in which Cuba and the United States can engage with and relate to each other respectfully.

No other president in our history has given a State of the Union Address like that.

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