In 1964, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was asked why the U.S. trades with the Soviet Union but not with Cuba. He replied that the Soviet government was a "permanent" government, and in the U.S. view, Castro’s government was "temporary." Five decades of failed U.S.-Cuba policy proved him wrong.

The United States has just concluded another round of talks with Cuban officials to advance the diplomatic normalization process announced by President Obama in December. But while Obama administration officials are sitting at the negotiating table, members of Congress shouldn’t sit idle. They have a pivotal role to play in ending a failed foreign policy relic and ensuring the successful revitalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.


The Obama administration’s already announced deal—including the successful release of Alan Gross after five years of imprisonment and easing travel restrictions to Cuba—is a good first step (and popular with American voters, even Cuban-American voters). But that first step was not sufficient to create lasting, positive change in our bilateral relationship and in Cuba itself. To get there, Congress must do its part.

Much of the embargo is codified through the “Cuban Democracy Act” of 1992 and the “Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act” of 1996, better known as Helms-Burton. Even if outright repeal of the embargo architecture is not politically possible due to Republican opposition, there are at least three important actions that Congress should take.

First, Congress should lift restrictions that prohibit Americans from travelling freely to Cuba. Continuing to prohibit travel to Cuba violates a key democratic concept—freedom of movement—and prevents Americans from forming relationships and exchanging ideas and experiences so central to modern existence. In fact, historical precedent and a substantial body of academic literature supports the view that in authoritarian countries, increased openness immediately before democratic transition increases the chances of democratic success. Congress should therefore pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (S. 299), introduced by Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFive reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Former GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' MORE (R-Ariz.). The bill has bipartisan backing from 15 senators, including five Republicans. A House version, H.R. 664, also has bipartisan support.

Second, Congress should increase trade with Cuba. Expanding commercial ties is a powerful tool of U.S. diplomacy and is ripe for Congressional action. Throughout history—from rock and roll and Levi’s jeans in the Soviet Union to social media in Iran and China—the positive links forged by the export of U.S. goods and technology have broken previously impenetrable barriers. Obama’s executive action allows certain telecommunications technology to be exported to Cuba and allows small dollar value Cuban goods to be brought into the U.S. This is a good start, but Congress can act to foster greater trade and commercial ties.

Congress should consider establishing a Cuban Enterprise investment fund to assist in the development of private enterprise, as it did with transitioning Soviet bloc countries. That would hasten the development of nascent Cuban enterprise by providing investment capital, loans and technical assistance to small and medium size businesses, laying the basis for a sector able to transact with the outside world.

Finally, Congress should modify the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) to build upon trade already flowing between the U.S. and Cuba. The TSRA currently allows certain bulk U.S. agricultural products to be exported to Cuba. Expanding it would allow for farm equipment, construction materials and finished consumer food products to be exported, thereby increasing the productivity and well-being of Cubans, while simultaneously benefitting U.S. firms and creating American jobs.

Critics of these actions would have the U.S. continue a failed policy of isolation that for more than 50 years produced no change in Cuba. Indeed, the policy helped preserve the island in a state of suspended animation—Dean Rusk would recognize today’s Havana and today’s Cuban government because they are almost identical to when he was in office. By contrast, this new course in bilateral relations for trade, travel and free exchange of ideas will be a positive force for change within Cuba and a boon for American businesses and tourists.

President Obama should be commended for charting a new course with Cuba. Now it is time for Congress, which has struggled of late to find bipartisan ideas to champion, to come together around a plan to change course. Even for a Congress as intransigent and sclerotic as this one, 50 years of failure ought to be enough.

Billerbeck is a policy adviser at the centrist think tank Third Way and a former aide to Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenators in the dark on parliamentarian's decision Progressives put Democrats on defense Senators reintroduce bill to block NATO withdrawal MORE (D-Va.).