“Game changer” is the phrase often used to describe a potential agreement to improve ties between the United States and Iran. The same phrase could be used for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The United States has been locked in an attitude of hostility toward both nations, growing out of events that occurred decades ago. But times change, old hostilities fade, and new reasons arise for looking to the future rather than to the past.
Sen. Bernard Sanders and two other senators traveled to Cuba last week and met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, discussing among other things the imprisonment in Cuba of an American aid worker, Alan Gross. There is much more to discuss with Cuba, such as the potential for commerce between the two nations, should the United States finally lift the embargo it has kept in place for more than 50 years.
Improved relations with Cuba is a cause that unites Republicans and Democrats, as was evident in an op-ed piece carried by the Miami Herald and written by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, and Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican from Arizona. If restrictions on trade and travel were lifted, Americans would have access to new commercial markets in Cuba and greater freedom to travel there as tourists. And the free flow of people and ideas would likely work eventually to break down repression in Cuba.
As Leahy and Flake point out, even a wide majority of Florida residents favor improved relations with Cuba. In the past the bitterness of the anti-Castro Cuban community in Florida has maintained a tight grip on U.S. policy toward Cuba. Meanwhile, as the United States freezes itself out of commerce and travel with Cuba, the rest of Latin America, Canada and Europe is enjoying the benefits of a thriving relationship.
It requires a leap of the imagination to picture a new future after decades locked in a relationship of enmity. Our relationship with Iran has been frozen in time since the Iranian revolution in 1979. In Iran, as in Cuba, we had our reasons to oppose some of the changes brought by revolution. Both regimes exercised repressive power, killing opponents, imprisoning dissidents, quashing freedom of expression. And yet we did not have clean hands in either country. We were backers of tyrants whom revolutionaries in both countries had thrown out — Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and the shah of Iran.
We have opportunities for change in both countries if we have the imagination to envision a new world. The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, appears determined to pursue negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. A rapprochement with Iran would open the door to a more balanced relationship in the Middle East. No longer would the United States be beholden to the repressive and backward oil monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Iran could emerge as a balance to the Sunni Islamic radicalism emanating from Saudi Arabia.
It takes a willingness to envision change to bring change about. American policymakers must learn to say yes when an opportunity stares them in the face, as it is doing with Iran. The push in Congress to seek tougher sanctions against Iran to apply new pressure during negotiations is one of the most benighted and irresponsible measures put forward in recent years. It would be a historic tragedy if meddling congressmen were to scuttle a historic breakthrough with Iran.
Meanwhile, good will journeys to Cuba continue. Sanders’ trip demonstrated to the Cuban leaders that times are changing in the United States. Imagine Cuba as a thriving Caribbean destination, bringing new prosperity to the region and relaxing its political oppression as a result. Certainly, the ideological imperative to oppose a repressive regime makes no sense when we already have long-established relationships with China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia, as well as many less -than- ideally free nations of Latin America. It’s time to break free from old habits and imagine a better future.