Ever since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, the U.S. has sought to undermine his rule. It hasn’t worked. Perhaps officials in Washington should consider adapting the more successful strategy pursued to undermine communism in Eastern Europe.

The Castro regime has been a tragedy for the Cuban people. After taking over, Castro imposed a doctrinaire communist dictatorship that eliminated political freedoms and gave the state and the Communist Party almost complete control of the economy. Until 1991, Cuba was sustained by generous subsidies from the Soviet Union. In response to Castro’s alliance with the Soviets, his support for revolution throughout Latin America, and his denial of basic freedoms to the Cuban people, the U.S. imposed an embargo and severely limited Cubans’ contacts with Americans. During the 1960s, the U.S. also tried to assassinate Castro and sponsored an ill-planned invasion of the island by Cuban exiles.

Yet the Castro dictatorship remains firmly in power, now under President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

In September 2010, Fidel Castro admitted to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (now a Bloomberg View columnist) that socialism no longer worked, even in Cuba. Castro’s regime might even lose its latest benefactor if Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who sells oil to the government in Havana at reduced prices, dies or is forced to leave office for health reasons.

In recent months, Raul Castro’s government has enacted small reforms, such as allowing Cubans to purchase DVD players, computers and mobile phones. This year, the regime took its most significant step: By the end of 2011, Cubans will be allowed to buy and sell real estate, subject to as-yet-unspecified restrictions. The government also said it would eliminate more than 1 million state jobs to force workers to find private-sector employment; and it will loosen state controls on agriculture and small business.

Raul Castro is at best a transitional figure, whose goal is to reform the communist economic system, not replace it. In April, the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba approved the legalization of real-estate transactions, but emphasized that the role of private property would remain small to avoid “capitalism and its hunger for luxury.” Raul Castro has shown no inclination to loosen the Communist Party’s total control of politics.

The U.S. should have learned long ago that cutting trade links and stopping contact between Americans and Cubans haven’t worked to undermine communist rule.

In the case of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, officials in Washington chose a different strategy. The U.S. maintained diplomatic and trade relations, allowed tourists and businessmen to visit, and encouraged cultural exchanges. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Eastern Europeans recalled how their chance encounters with Westerners gave them access to uncensored news and a chance to compare their lives with those in democratic, free-market societies. For many behind the Iron Curtain, having to negotiate with a Western backpacker for unavailable goods, such as blue jeans, demonstrated communism’s bankruptcy.

President Barack Obama has loosened the ban on travel to Cuba, allowing Cuban Americans to travel as many times as they wish without the need for a license from the Treasury.

The administration should take the next step: allow Americans without family in Cuba to visit the island. While this would provide additional tourism revenue, it would also undermine the regime’s effort to maintain its monopoly on the flow of information. When the U.S. Interests Section in Havana began streaming uncensored news on a Times Square-like ticker tape around its building, Cuban officials complained bitterly that the U.S. was interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs.

Obama should also seek to strengthen Cuba’s fledgling private sector. One approach would be to create an exemption in U.S. law that would let Americans buy Cuban goods produced by private farmers or other small businesses. Those who support the embargo say the U.S. should change its policies only when the government in Cuba does. It is up to American hardliners to explain why it isn’t in the U.S. interest to promote private enterprise.

For 50 years, the Castro family has bedeviled the government in Washington. But as we have seen in the Arab Spring, sometimes small changes and simple acts can prompt historic events. It’s worth a try.

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