[Below are excellent comments by John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, from a recent Brookings conference on Cuba. (Unedited transcript PDF)]
When Americans go to Cuba, they see a complex reality, not the ideological hero of the left or the ideological villain of the right. They meet Cubans who have all kinds of views and are prepared to talk about those views. They begin to recognize the role of nationalism and the respect for sovereignty in the dynamic. This is not a history that begins in '59; it's a history that begins in the 19th Century or the 18th Century and certainly was a major factor in the development of Cuban self-awareness throughout the 20th Century. It is not the same country as portrayed by exiles who have their own agenda.
Now, I'm Irish-American. I portrayed the Brits' role in Northern Ireland to equal one-sidedness, as I hear Cuba now described today, but that's not the reality and that's not what Americans need to be knowing if they're trying to determine their country's policies.
It's also totally inconsistent for [the US] to have this policy towards [no] other country in the world. No other country suffers from this travel restriction, whether it is a country that [has] virtually the same political system, [or] legal system -- [such as] China or Vietnam. [T]he U.S. is a leading source of tourists to Vietnam today aside from China, which is a next door neighbor. And Vietnam's political system is not so different than Cuba's. We don't object in an organized fashion to the Vietnamese party or the state, [and] that doesn't inhibit our tourists at all. There are other countries that are far worse that you can go to [such as] North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran. Also, our limits on travel... give attention to a special interest group. As intense as its feelings are, it's a tiny percentage of the American population. It's even now a minority of it's own population. It does not reflect two-thirds of Americans who think we should have normal relations with Cuba and believe there should no longer be travel restrictions, nor does it, as I said, reflect the 40 percent that would travel there on vacation, nor the 55 percent of Cuban-Americans that think all restrictions should be ended, not just the revenue restrictions.
According to the [latest] GAO report [WP article], 120,000 Americans every year go to Cuba through third countries without any license. A lot of those are Cuban-Americans, but a lot of them aren't. The Cuban figures have about 40,000 non-Cuban American Americans traveling there and it cannot be controlled.
Finally, and I'm still just talking about the United States, the ending of travel restrictions can restore our national reputation faster than anything else. Our policy towards Cuba is as damaging as our war in Iraq. We're considered an arrogant bully ["greatest threat" (PDF)] by much of the hemisphere and much of the world. They think we're obsessed. It's an echo of the Monroe Doctrine, the Platt Amendment, the concept of the Caribbean as a U.S. lake. [O]ther countries share our goals, but they think we [use] silly and counterproductive means; that is, they'd like to see a Cuba more democratic [with] greater respect for human rights, but they think engagement leads to change, [and] isolation doesn't.