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Originally published February 27, 2009 at 4:26 PM | Page modified February 27, 2009 at 5:18 PM

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President Obama should end the Cuban embargo

President Obama should end the U.S. embargo with travel and trade, argue John Lear and Marisela Fleites-Lear. Lifting the embargo would promote an open flow of ideas and trade and more people-to-people contacts. It would allow more Cubans to confront their internal problems, pushing the Cuban leadership to stop making excuses and to bring about the changes that Cubans in the island will ultimately determine.

Special to The Times

What does the election of Barack Obama mean for Cubans? As we walked the streets of Havana late December, one of us wearing an Obama T-shirt, the ironies were many. For much of the past 30 years, both of us — one born and raised in the U.S. and the other in Cuba — could have felt more comfortable wearing the image of Fidel Castro than that of any U.S. president.

When we first met in Cuba 20 years ago, displaying a U.S. flag — short of burning it — would have provoked official and community reproach. But since the post-Soviet economic crisis and mild reforms of the 1990s, such clothing is fairly common.

During this 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, everywhere around us was the face of Fidel Castro, both as youthful guerrilla leader and aging statesman, even though the ailing leader has not made a public appearance in more than two years. While the face of the United States is now one of change and hope, the face of Cuba has grown old and faded and weighs heavily on its struggling citizens.

The T-shirt sparked no impromptu street dialogues. Yet during our two weeks in Cuba (the maximum stay allowed by the U.S. for family visits), Barack Obama featured in every conversation with old friends and new acquaintances.

All expressed good will toward the new president and hoped that America's role in the world would change. Many marveled at Obama's election-night speech, which circulated on flash drives. One Afro-Cuban friend wryly asked, "After 50 years of official Cuban denunciations of United States racism, how are we to understand the historic process that led to the election of a black president?"

The celebration of the revolution's 50th anniversary was subdued. Virtually every Cuban we encountered expressed disappointment that almost one year after Raul Castro assumed the presidency, few of the badly needed reforms he proposed have been implemented. Some believe he is unwilling to make painful changes that might undermine the current order. Others think he is still dominated by his older brother.

Obama's election has brought some optimism. The looming question is whether he will reject 50 years of unsuccessful U.S. policies toward the island. Several Cubans were skeptical, observing Obama had more pressing problems to address.

An older Cuban observed Obama was only one man and that U.S. political and economic interests would keep him from doing anything. This doubt was repeated often in the tightly controlled media.

When we asked Cubans to imagine a unilateral suspension of the U.S. embargo on travel and trade with Cuba, almost all agreed that it would lead to fast and positive change in Cuba.

Established in 1962 in response to Cuba's nationalizations of U.S. property and alliance with the Soviet Union, the U.S. embargo was tightened at the end of the Cold War, sanctioning foreign companies that do business in Cuba since 1996, and further restricting family travel and cash remittances since 2004.

The embargo has undoubtedly punished Cuba's economy and its people. But rather than undermining the regime, it has strengthened it by providing the Castros with an excuse for every economic failure and infringement of civil rights, and by making U.S. aggression manifest to every Cuban on the island.

The lack of formal diplomatic relations also puts a heavy burden on the many Cubans with family in the U.S. For example, one friend who wants to visit her daughter and grandchildren in the U.S. cannot obtain a visa interview until 2011.

Another reluctantly chose to migrate legally and permanently to Miami to be able to meet her grandsons, after her application for a tourist visa was denied 6 times in 8 years.

If Obama decided to eliminate the embargo, he would not be "only one man." Since the early 1990s, the embargo repeatedly has been condemned by our European allies and rejected for 17 consecutive years by an overwhelming majority in the United Nations. In December, Raul Castro joined a summit of leaders of 23 Latin American nations that unanimously denounced the embargo.

Closer to home, Republicans like former Congressman George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, have pushed for agricultural sales to Cuba, and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell has helped facilitate the sale of Washington fruit, peas and lentils to Cuba since 2002.

But these exceptions to the embargo have been limited by the U.S. requirement that payment for food be in cash and in advance. Since 2000, the House of Representatives has adopted language lifting the travel ban four times, the last time joined by the Senate, only to back down in the face of a veto threat from President Bush.

During the election, Obama divided the Cuban-American community when he promised to restore family travel and remittances to pre-2004 levels. Yet he still won Florida, including Miami-Dade County, where a majority of Cuban Americans now favor ending the embargo. Unfortunately, while the likely fulfillment of Obama's campaign promises would be welcomed by Cubans, it won't encourage real change.

The irony of U.S.-Cuban relations is that the embargo's unilateral end would most likely accomplish what the embargo has failed to do: deprive the regime of the glue of U.S. aggression that holds it together.

Lifting the embargo would promote an open flow of ideas and trade and more people-to-people contacts. It would allow more Cubans to confront their internal problems, pushing the Cuban leadership to stop making excuses and to bring about the changes that Cubans in the island want and will ultimately determine.

It is time we acknowledge that bullying tactics do not promote peace and democracy in the world. By lifting the embargo, Obama would help us build our image in the world as a forward-looking nation of good will.

John Lear teaches Latin American studies at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma. Marisela Fleites-Lear taught at the University of Havana and now teaches literature and Spanish at Green River Community College.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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