Cruise to Cuba brings change

This editorial ran in the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

President Barack Obama correctly sensed that engagement with Cuba is the best way to change the Castro regime’s behavior. A cruise ship docking in Havana, whose passengers include Cuban-Americans, is the latest concrete example of a policy that succeeds in forcing change by working with Cuba, not freezing it out. The Cuban people will be the ultimate winners.

Carrying more than 700 passengers, Carnival Corp.’s Adonia had a smooth 90-mile trip across the Florida Straits, arriving in Havana on Monday as hundreds of Cubans watched from shore. But the voyage was almost scuttled before it began. Cuba had originally insisted that Cuba-born passengers would not be able to enter port.

Facing fierce criticism from both U.S. officials and the Cuban-American community, Carnival threatened to delay any voyages until the matter was resolved. Then late last week, Cuban authorities lifted their decades-old restriction. The Adonia will make calls at two more Cuban ports before returning to Miami next week, the first of many voyages to come.

This is the sort of accommodation that simply would not have happened if the United States and Cuba were still not talking to one another. Given the choice of enforcing a ridiculous rule or keeping open the hope of more trade and commerce, the Cuban government chose the rational path and backed down. This was seldom the case in the past.

Increasingly, the Cuban people will see how Americans live and how they think. And the figurative walls that surround and isolate the Castro brothers’ Cuba will continue to collapse as the Cuban people see more of the way that free people live – and demand those same freedoms for themselves. And, of course, there is the humanitarian aspect: For relatives and friends separated by decades of the two countries’ animosity, regular sea crossings will bring reunions and closer ties.

America can continue to lead by example. Great strides have been made since December 2014, when Obama announced that the United States would open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than half a century as part of a restoration of full diplomatic relations. Then came his presidential visit this spring, including an exhibition baseball game featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. That game was a reminder of the importance of Cuba to the Tampa Bay region, which has long and deep ties to the island, including the roughly 94,000 people of Cuban heritage who live here. The popularity of direct flights from Tampa International Airport is just one testament to this fact.

The more that the Cuban people see of America and Americans, the more that both they and the United States will benefit. Politics, not geography, have separated two nations that should be able to collaborate on everything from culture to climate science. America will enjoy not just increased trade but over time will be able to export more of our most precious commodities – liberty and freedom.