Images: CSA Images, Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Images: CSA Images, Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban president Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last week has fed both hopes and fears that the half-century freeze between the U.S. and Cuba is about to thaw.

Don’t light up the Cohibas just yet. Obama’s largely meaningless courtesy was accompanied by a more relevant bit of meaningless theater: Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s walkout on Castro’s speech. Obama has done little to fix the U.S.’s failed Cuba policy. Yet Congress’s bitter-enders remain determined -- and able -- to defend an embargo that hurts U.S. interests and undermines its values.

Last month, Obama went to Miami and wisely told a gathering of Cuban-Americans that U.S. policy toward their homeland “doesn’t make sense.” Yet his administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and commerce has basically just restored the status quo under Bill Clinton’s administration, before George W. Bush clamped down from 2001 to 2009. Obama could do much more before bumping up against the limits to his executive authority set by Congress, which has made the dismantlement of the U.S. embargo on Cuba contingent on significant progress toward democratic governance.

The argument against Obama doing so is that Cuba remains a repressive regime. As Obama shook Castro’s hand, for instance, Cuban security forces were beating and arresting dozens of activists for celebrating International Human Rights Day. Although Castro’s regime has instituted some noteworthy economic reforms, its detention and harassment of dissidents increased last year.

Yet history’s direction is as clear as its lessons: Although five decades of stringent U.S. sanctions haven’t dislodged the Castros and their single-party socialist state, Cuba is nonetheless changing for the better, with more economic and, yes, political freedom. It also has a growing middle class (nurtured by an estimated $2 billion in annual remittances from the U.S.) composed of consumistas, not comunistas.

Moreover, consider the rising costs to the U.S. of sticking to its course. This year at the United Nations, 188 countries voted to condemn the U.S. embargo. Even Israel, the one country that supported the U.S., has commercial ties with Cuba. At the recent World Trade Organization talks, Cuba led a group of Latin American nations that sideswiped a trade agreement because it didn’t include a provision that would invalidate the embargo. The opposition to the embargo not only looms over U.S. diplomacy in Latin America, but also energizes the hemisphere’s leftist bloc, led by Venezuela. From telecoms and consumer goods to agriculture, U.S. companies risk losing out on Cuba’s nascent market.

Cooperation with Cuba on issues such as cleaning up oil spills and fighting drug traffickers -- where Cuba has been remarkably helpful -- will be increasingly important. And surely the U.S. Treasury Department would be better off spending more time enforcing sanctions against Iran and North Korea than flyspecking the itineraries of U.S. travelers to Cuba -- including by vetoing a planned excursion by U.S. researchers to Cuban baseball games.

Even if Obama is unwilling to expend the political capital to get Congress to repeal or rewrite the laws governing the embargo, he can still change Cuba policy for the better with a few strokes of his pen.

He could start by taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. As the department’s 2011 and 2012 terrorism reports note, there is “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” Keeping it on the list just undermines support for the larger anti-terrorist cause.

Several research organizations have offered useful suggestions for Obama, such as resuming ferry services and expanding the categories of licensed travel between the two nations. The U.S. would also benefit from speeding up the tempo of recent talks with Cuba on drug trafficking.

Members of Congress who found Obama’s handshake "nauseating" -- especially those whose families suffered under Fidel Castro -- will find it hard to stomach any such policy changes. So be it. What’s needed from the U.S. president now are bold deeds, not empty handshakes.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.