Time is ripe for a new approach to Cuba

Unfortunately, our nation faces enormous challenges in virtually every region of the globe.

In countries ranging from Iran to North Korea to Syria to Mali, and on issues spanning terrorism, drug trafficking, global warming and cyber warfare, each day will bring seemingly impossible problems for our nation's foreign policy leaders, especially new Secretary of State John Kerry.

There is one international issue, however, on which genuine progress is not only possible but is likely — if the secretary of state and President Barack Obama are prepared to make this issue a foreign policy priority.

Only 90 miles from America's shores is the small nation of Cuba, which today poses no military or economic threat to the United States but is a continuing reminder of more than 50 years of failure by Democratic and Republican administrations to achieve our stated objective of fostering democratic change.

Our current Cuba policy is an irritant in our relations with many friends in this hemisphere who believe the policy of attempted isolation of Cuba has been counterproductive. Our State Department has essentially been informed that there will never be another summit of hemispheric leaders if Cuba is not included.

Secretary Kerry will remember the central role he played in the normalization of relations with Vietnam by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and how normalizing relations with a communist erstwhile foe can be a win-win. Most will agree that the politics of Vietnam were even more complex, particularly with the emotionally lingering POW and MIA issue, than U.S.-Cuba politics.

I am advocating a series of engagements with Cuba on issues of mutual concern. Both countries are concerned about drug trafficking, environmental issues (including hurricane tracking), migration, and development of potentially lucrative oil and gas reserves in the Florida Straits.

Recently, I heard Cuba's senior representative in Washington, Ambassador Jose Cabanas, speak with considerable logic about how his country could cooperate with the United States on energy production, which is now being joint-ventured by Cuba with companies from many other countries, while our energy companies are prohibited from participating. He noted that an oil spill, for example, off the coast of Cuba would affect not only Cuba but almost immediately South Florida as well.

The United States has had informal contacts with Cubans on these and other mutual concerns. I am proposing that the Obama administration, with the secretary of state taking the lead, move quickly to formalize arrangements that will serve the unquestioned interests of both countries. Cuban officials have indicated they are willing to do so, and we should test this assertion without preconditions. Although I do not propose seeking immediate normalization of relations with Cuba, that could well be the ultimate result of the phased steps I am advocating.

The political landscape on the Cuba question is shifting. About half of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in 2012 went for President Obama. An encouraging report emerged in recent days that the State Department is considering removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Many of the issues our nation must confront seem almost beyond solution. In our own front yard is one issue — opening the door to better relations with Cuba — that could achieve the same kind of success that President Clinton and then-Senator Kerry achieved in Vietnam less than two decades ago.

Let us seize this low-hanging diplomatic opportunity with Cuba.

Michael D. Barnes represented Maryland in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1979 to 1987, serving as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. He is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. His email is mbarnes@ciponline.org.

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