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Milt Hankins: A thaw in relations with Cuba overdue

Jan. 24, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

On our trips to Latin American countries and Caribbean islands, my wife and I have flown over Cuba. The first time, back in the mid 1980s on our way to Costa Rica, I admit I was, for no good reason, apprehensive.

Since 1961, official U.S. policy toward Cuba has been two-pronged: economic embargo and diplomatic isolation. The George W. Bush administration strongly enforced the embargo and increased travel restrictions. Americans with immediate family in Cuba could visit only once every three years for a maximum of two weeks, while family remittances to Cuba were reduced from $3,000 to just $300 in 2004.

Essentially, all the United States has accomplished by its disdain for the Castros has been cruel and unusual punishment for Cubans and their relatives who risked life and limb to gain new life in the United States. The parents of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has dedicated himself to public service, were Cuban immigrants.

But, back to Cuba. Once upon a time, Americans flocked to the sunny beaches of Havana for weekends of relaxation in the sun and even extended vacations. It was good for American tourists and for the Cuban economy. While in Jamaica, we could have visited Cuba; knowing that our passports would not protect us if our illegal entry was challenged, we declined. Unfortunately, the days are long gone when American tourists are protected. Travelers have languished in North Korean, Iranian and Middle Eastern jails for minor infractions of their laws.

A thaw in Cold War-era relations with Cuba is overdue. According to some sources, the current administration is doing just that. With little fanfare, the administration has eased Bush's restrictions and is quietly employing a "new think" diplomacy to end our pointless standoff.

When President Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at the recent memorial service for Nelson Mandela, it was another brief but effective signal that the president wants to see improved relations between the two countries. It was, as I recall, something the president talked about during his presidential campaign.

In 2008, U.S. companies exported roughly $710 million worth of food and agricultural products to Cuba. Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas have all brokered agricultural deals with Cuba in recent years. President Obama recently told a Miami audience that we have to be "creative" and "thoughtful" in our efforts to bring change to Cuba.

In unremarked speeches over the last few months, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have cryptically acknowledged the need for a new approach to Cuba, a country we have literally and figuratively waged war with for over 50 years.

I never fly over Cuba that I don't wonder why the United States has diplomatic relations with several communist countries around the globe, but virtually none with this island nation a mere 106 miles from Key West, Fla. Hopefully, we will soon see a warmer climate in relations with our southern neighbor.

We would love to visit Cuba -- legally!

Milt Hankins of Ashland, Ky., is a retired minister, theologian and freelance writer.

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