MIAMI -- President Barack Obama should roll back U.S. curbs on Cuba to encourage democratic change without waiting for Havana to make reforms first, a group of diplomats, academics and opinion leaders said on Thursday.
The international group sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank urged the new U.S. president to seize the initiative to defuse half a century of political enmity between Washington and the Communist-ruled Caribbean island.
While stopping short of demanding an outright end to the 47-year-old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, the "U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition" group recommended various steps to ease restrictions on travel and trade with the island, and to boost cooperation and "people-to-people" contacts.
Washington's long-standing policy of trying to end communist rule in Cuba through diplomatic isolation and the embargo must be replaced with a more intelligent policy of "critical and constructive engagement," said the group, which included U.S., Canadian, Spanish and British diplomats and academics, and a leader of the Cuban-American community.
"A policy of status quo is no longer possible ... We need a policy that is pro-active toward Cuba ... a new dynamic to change half a century of unfriendly relationship," said Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who served as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002.
"It cannot consist of megaphone diplomacy ... It cannot consist of 'If you do this, I do that,'" she added.
The group urged Obama to use his executive authority to quickly dismantle some of the tangled web of U.S. sanctions against Cuba -- without waiting for Congress's approval.
The group recommended short-term initiatives including easing family and humanitarian travel, starting an official dialogue on issues like migration, counter-narcotics and the environment, and allowing the sale of communications equipment to Cuba.
The ultimate goal would be restoration of normal ties.
Brookings Institution Vice President Carlos Pascual said Obama's election, coupled with Fidel Castro's handover of power in Cuba last year to younger brother Raul, created a "unique opportunity" to improve U.S. policy toward the island.
Havana has been largely dismissive of U.S. initiatives that do not focus on ending the embargo, which it sees as enshrining decades of U.S. aggression against its people and sovereignty.
In what some hope could be a first step in changing the U.S. policy of shunning Cuba, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday easing restrictions on trade with Cuba and family travel to the island.
But the legislation could face trouble in the Senate.
While several Cuban-American members of Congress oppose dismantling the Cuba embargo, Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, President of the Cuban American National Foundation, a leading Miami-based Cuban exile group, said he favored a new policy.
"We saw a lot of tough talk during the last administration, tough talk and doing nothing, like waiting for snow in Havana," he said.
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