When Spring Comes to Washington

April 5, 2013

Tourists, from the U.S. and around the world, flock to Washington at spring time.  They come to hear echoes of this nation’s past, learn about its founding principles, and think about their relevance today.

Visitors to the monuments along the Tidal Basin often stop at the Jefferson Memorial.  Modeled after the Roman Parthenon, it speaks loudly to those who can appreciate his vital and open mind.  One panel reads:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and institutions,” quoting a letter he wrote after his presidency, “But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”  Otherwise, he concluded, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy…”

Is there a better metaphor for U.S.-Cuba policy, buttoned so uncomfortably into the straitjacket fitted for it by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton?  You might have read about their Helms-Burton law using Netscape Navigator to “surf” the web when it passed in 1996.

Seventeen years later, the conditions that existed on the ground then – in Havana and Miami, where its passage was demanded – have changed as much as the technology we use to learn about them.

No, Cuba is not marching toward a multiparty democracy.  But, it’s economic system is being revamped, government payrolls are being down-sized, cooperatives and private businesses are on the rise.  State-owned media carry complaints about the slow pace of reform.  Houses and cars are being sold on the open market.  Cubans with cellphones pass in and out of hotels.  Most Cubans, including Cuban dissidents, are free to travel, even tweet their opposition to government policy, and return.  These changes are real, and a Vice President whose last name is Díaz-Canel, not Castro, is in place to carry them forward.

Yes, Florida too, once ground zero for policies like Helms-Burton, has a different look and feel.  President Obama’s travel reforms are speeding the reconciliation of the Cuban family and helping Cuban-Americans support relatives taking advantage of Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  Miami Cubans, including Carlos Saladrigas, who once led thousands to stop believers from visiting Cuba to witness Pope John Paul II celebrate mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, embraced the chance to see Pope Benedict XVI worship with the island’s faithful.

The last election saw President Obama split the Cuban American vote with his opponent; Miami elected a pro-family travel Democrat to a Congressional seat; and Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) is in Cuba right now pursuing the business interests of her district and the foreign policy interests of the United States.  Today, it is the hardliners who are increasingly marginalized, while Mr. Saladrigas and his Cuba Study Group join the ranks of those who have long called for Helms-Burton’s repeal.

These are big changes.  What might Jefferson have thought about them?  History teaches us that our Third President wanted to purchase or annex Cuba for reasons he expressed in his time, which might seem eerily familiar to us in our time.

And yet, spring has come to Jefferson’s capital.  It is easy to imagine that he would find the changes happening in Havana and Miami to be self-evident; that as evidence of what he called “discoveries,” and we might call, “new thinking,” were made, he’d want the policy to be more enlightened; that he’d have us slip from the confining coat of Helms-Burton, and beckon his successor in the White House (with apologies to Chance the Gardener) to turn over a new leaf as well.

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