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Time to bring Cuba in from the cold

Fidel Castro's revelation to a US journalist that the communist model doesn't work any more shows it is in everyone's interests, including ours, for the US embargo of Cuba to end.

On the morning of February 7, 1962, president John F. Kennedy leant back in his chair in the Oval Office and smoked a Cuban cigar. He then signed an Executive Order, which put into effect an embargo of the Caribbean country.

The story goes that JFK ordered his press secretary the night before signing the order to obtain 1200 cigars. When he returned in the morning, Kennedy somewhat begrudgingly signed the order. JFK had originally wanted cigars excluded, but bowed to protests from Florida's tobacco farmers.

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While Cuba today is not much different to the Cuba of 1962, the world has moved on from these sort of political obstacles embedded in history.

That is, of course, except the US. Despite the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago, the fulcrum upon which Washington policy towards Havana sits remains one of confrontation. In fact, president Bill Clinton in 1996 signed the Helms-Burton Act, which extended the embargo to include foreign companies trading with Cuba after the Cuban government shot down two US civilian aircraft killing four people. Even the election of President Barack Obama, who opposed the embargo as a senator, did not soften America's hardline attitude to Cuba. Although Obama did relax some family travel restrictions, they remain tightly controlled, leading Florida University professor Marifeli Perez-Stable to say: "Keeping families apart — as Washington has done in the Cuban case — is unmistakably un-American."

The Cuban government has not helped itself. Apart from the actual actions such as the shooting down of the plane, it's attitude towards the US remains as hardline as it was after the revolution. Yet on the romantic streets of Havana, it is clear the people have moved on from the socialist experiment of the 1970s.

Australia has a significant role to play and a lot to gain in helping bring about an end to the embargo. Our close relationship with the US and our evolving relationship with Cuba places us in a unique position.

Following on from then foreign minister Stephen Smith's visit to Cuba last November, the Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez visited Australia a few months ago. These were sure signs of the strength of our formal relationship over the past 21 years.

In the past two years, Australia has worked more closely in international organisations with Cuba. This includes the UN, where Australia supported the annual resolution against the embargo and supported Cuba's bid to train doctors for Pacific nations such as East Timor. As Smith has said: "It continues to be our view that the blockade should be lifted, that's been Australia's position for a long period of time."

With our bid for the UN Security Council in 2012-13 set to continue under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Cuba's vote will be pivotal to delivering those of other Caribbean states. It will also help our image in the region under our broader strategy to grasp the opportunity to do more with Latin America at all levels – bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally.

Our efforts will be bolstered by the turning of public opinion in the US against the embargo.

Many American businesses are impatient to do business with Cuba, seeing it as a wasted opportunity dominated by their European and Asian competitors. Oil companies are keen to drill offshore, construction firms want to bid for infrastructure projects, and farmers want to export more rice, vegetables and meat. The perplexing reality is that ending the embargo would bring about significant economic benefits for the US.

As one commentator has remarked "even a small step like rescinding the 2004 Bush restrictions would earn the Obama administration international goodwill regarding Cuba". Such goodwill would not be unnoticed by those in the Arab world or leftist governments who view the US as a labyrinth of hawkish politicians. Bringing Cuba in from the cold would, of course, further isolate North Korea and Iran and potentially forcing progress in those countries.

A bolder step would be for the US government to provide travel opportunities to Cuban citizens, allowing them to experience the outside world through one-and-a-half-track diplomacy. The reality is that the embargo has not allowed the US to form connections with a whole generation of Cuban officials who will become leaders in government or the opposition.

But any easing of the embargo would need to get past the hardline Republican caucus in Florida. Representing a large Cuban immigrant population in the Sunshine State, they are not eager to support any measure they feel indirectly legitimises the Castro leadership.

Ultimately, the world must realise that democracy can only come to Cuba from within its own borders. But ending the embargo is more likely to help than not. Change might be risky politically, but holding the line is not achieving anything.

It is time we set about unblocking Cuba.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald