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Hot Topic: The U.S.-Cuba Relationship

(AP Photo/Geovany Fernandez)
Anytime lawmakers mention the possibility of tweaking government policy toward decades-old national foes, eyebrows are sure to be raised. So it's not surprising that members of the Congressional Black Caucus caught some heat after their recent trip to Havana, where they met with Cuban leaders, including the perpetually ailing Fidel Castro.

During a meeting with three of the lawmakers, the 82-year-old former dictator reportedly asked them this: "How can we help President Obama?" It was certainly an interesting question coming from someone who has clashed with so many of Mr. Obama's predecessors.

Upon her return, the delegation's leader, California Democrat Barbara Lee (seen above with current Cuban president, Raul Castro) expressed confidence in Cuba's "desire to trade with the United States under normal diplomatic and trade relations."

Enter the critics: Republican Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Frank Wolf of Virginia chided the Democratic contingent for ignoring Cuba's history of human rights violations, arguing that the talks would only strengthen an oppressive regime.

"When the tragic plight of political prisoners is ignored, suppressed, devalued or trivialized by visiting politicians, the bullies in the gulags are given a free pass to inflict pain," Smith told reporters Thursday.

But despite the outcry, a shift in America's Cuba policy seem to be well underway.

Already this year, Congress has rolled back a Bush-era tightening of rules on travel by American family members who want to visit their Cuban relatives. The next step could be the further easing of travel restrictions to allow Americans to send more money to their families still on the island and to visit as often as they want – measures the White House is expected to announce as early as this month.

A complete makeover of relations between the two countries could end in the lifting the trade embargo America placed on Cuba 47 years ago – though the Obama administration's current position is to keep the embargo in place.

Whatever the degree of change, it does seem that change is coming. The larger question is this: Can 50 years of distrust on both sides be erased by a series of executive orders and Congressional decrees? And is it wise to try to do so?

(AP/Argentina Presidency)
Consider the logic behind a potential policy shift. Those in favor say that decades of isolating the nation economically - while waiting for Fidel Castro to fade into history - simply has not worked. Despite constant rumors of his impending death, Castro remains a prominent national figure. And Cuba, shunned by the U.S., has fostered growing relationships with Venezuela, China and America's other former Cold War foe, Russia.

Those pushing America to reconsider its Cuba position also think a more proactive approach is the best way to promote democracy.

The U.S. has spent too much time as a "passive observer rather than active supporter of the process of democratization for one of our closest hemispheric neighbors," according to the Cuban American National Foundation, which released a report Thursday advocating a "break from the past" that involves "incremental change" - but not a unilateral lifting of the embargo.

Ctitics of a policy change highlight Cuba's checkered human rights record as the best argument against warmer relations toward the island nation.

In 2005, the United Nations Human Rights Commission released a report that Cuba was holding 306 political prisoners. And in 2003, Cuba arrested 75 dissidents and journalists the country charged with conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

Critics might also point to the political risk of stirring the strong emotions of Cuban exiles who remain staunch foes of the Castro regime.

"I would open the doors to Cuba," Rodolfo Frometa told the New York Times this week. "But it would be with the use of force to remove the system completely and create a democracy."

Inflaming the passions of Miami residents like the 64-year-old Fromenta may not be something Florida politicians want to do. And Florida's perennially critical role in presidential politics almost certainly means national leaders will think long and hard before significantly changing course in its stance toward Cuba.

With American pondering the future of its relationship with its island neighbor, we wanted to get your thoughts. Do you think the U.S. should seek a radical departure from past policy? Should it continue applying the same economic pressure it has for the last 50 years? Or is the cautious, incremental approach it seems to be on the best way to bring about meaningful change?

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