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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lift the Cuba Embargo

The tragic spectacle of Elian Gonzalez is a jarring reminder of the peculiar nature of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

For the past four decades, Washington has dealt with this island of 11 million people as it has treated no other nation in the world. The still unresolved saga of the 6-year-old Cuban boy raises questions about what interests this policy and the prospects for changing it.

Since being rescued at sea on Thanksgiving - clinging to an inner tube after the rickety boat on which he was traveling with his mother was swamped by high seas - Elian has become a political symbol for Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

In Havana, demonstrators march daily, calling for the boy to be returned to his father, while the Cuban-American community of South Florida demands that Elian remain in the United States.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled Jan. 5 that Elian be returned, Cuban-Americans took to the streets of Miami and the courts to prevent the INS order from being carried out.

American politicians have been quick to rally to the Cuban-American cause, yet polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly support the INS ruling.

The Miami Herald reports that 70 percent of the visitors to its web site who expressed an opinion felt the INS decision to return Elian was the right one.

Do these results suggest that U.S.-Cuban policy is losing the support of the public? Maybe, but change will not come easily.

U.S. policy toward Cuba is built on two pillars: the diplomatic and economic isolation of Fidel Castro's regime and the special treatment of Cuban refugees.

Washington and Havana have not had full diplomatic relations since 1961.

A year later, Washington adopted economic sanctions that made it illegal for U.S. citizens to trade or invest in Cuba or travel to the island.

In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants Cubans easier access to political asylum and residency in the United States than refugees from other countries.

These measures, enacted at the height of the Cold War to contain Castro's Marxist revolution from spreading to the rest of Latin America, remain essentially in place today, largely because of the anti-Castro passion and the political muscle of the Cuban-American community.

But now, a decade after the end of the Cold War, when the Cuban dictator is no longer a threat to our security or that of his other neighbors, is it not time to reassess our policy and broaden the interests it serves?

Moving toward more normal relations with Cuba is compelling for many reasons.

First, many Americans - and most of the world - find the embargo morally objectionable. In the name of punishing a government that violates human rights, the United States inflicts added suffering on the Cuban people.

Moving toward normal relations would also put us in step with the rest of the world. In the most recent United Nations vote condemning the embargo, only two other countries sided with the United States. And it would make our policies more consistent and evenhanded.

U.S. companies can do business with China and Vietnam, but not Cuba.

Politicians speak out about keeping the INS from returning Elian to Cuba, but stand silent when a boatload of Haitian refugees is sent home.

A second argument is economic self-interest. While the rest of the world is now doing business in Cuba, U.S. companies are kept out of a market only 144 kilometers from our shores.

A third is that the current policy infringes personal freedom. Americans still cannot freely travel to Cuba the way they can other countries in the world.

Fourth, there are many practical reasons why two neighboring countries should have closer relations. In the case of Cuba, these include building the relationships necessary for a peaceful transition to a post-Castro government and constructive advice and reivigorating the Islands economy.

The final and most important reason to change is that the current policy is not working. Yet it gives Castro, who just celebrated 41 years in power, a convenient scapegoat for Cuba's troubles. Why not remove U.S. policy from the picture to give the Cuban people and the world a clearer understanding of the fundamental causes of Cuba's poverty and repressive political system?

Advocating normal relations with Cuba does not imply either approval of the Castro regime or the end of our efforts to promote democracy in that country.

Rather, it recognizes that there is a broader array of interests than are now being served.

To broaden the policy debate, however, advocates of change will have to promote their cause with the intensity and tactics employed by Cuban-Americans in directing the course of U.S.-Cuban policy. This means organizing, speaking out and holding elected officials accountable for other views on how to conduct relations with Cuba.

Terry L. McCoy is a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Florida. He contributed this comment to Newsday.