Former President Barack Obama’s announcement Jan. 12 removing the longstanding “wet foot, dry foot” policy has stirred mixed emotions for thousands of Cubans and Cuban-Americans in my hometown of Miami, Fla., where the streets have only recently been swept clean following parades in light of Fidel Castro’s death.

Just as the tyrant’s death symbolized the end of a dark era in Cuba’s history, the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy means the winds have once again shifted for the Cuban people on and off the island. Previously, the policy allowed Cuban migrants to pursue a U.S. residency if they arrived in the U.S., but would send back any migrants caught in the water between the two countries.

Although critics argue that the removal of this policy will limit Cubans and tighten the government’s control on them, the cold, hard truth is that this necessary change will force Cuba to finally confront its oppressive regime. Changes in “wet foot, dry foot” reaffirm this conviction, inspiring all Cubans to look inward — to question the truth of their unfavorable reality and challenge the system in pursuit of change.

The Clinton administration established the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 1995, allowing any Cuban who touched foot on U.S. soil to seek permanent residence without risk of deportation. The order was founded on the premise that those who arrived sought political refuge, crossing 90 miles of ocean on makeshift rafts to flee toward welcoming American shores.

Sadly, little has changed in Cuba since the ’90s. Acts of repression and human rights violations have reached record numbers with 2016 witnessing the highest average number of short-term arrests for political reasons since 2010, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. With the surge in political prisoners, freedom of expression, association and basic opportunities are virtually nonexistent on the island.

The United States’ unwavering support of the Cuban people, as evidenced by the more than 2 million Cubans who have been warmly welcomed since the start of the Castro dictatorship in 1959, is reflective of the American tradition of providing refuge to the oppressed.

Notwithstanding the change in policy, Cuban nationals who are persecuted solely for their beliefs or are suffering from human rights violations can still apply for political asylum or humanitarian relief from the United States.

Moreover, the United States grants about 25,000 visas per year for travel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, according to the embassy’s website.

For those Cubans who can no longer flee the regime, the implications are that they must assume a proactive role in demanding the quality of life that, until now, they have searched for elsewhere. At stake is nothing more than the future of their country and the well-being of their families, friends and neighbors.

While some are adapting to an unexpected change of plans, many Cubans on the island are welcoming the policy as an opportunity to reclaim their rights and those of past generations. Human rights activists and nonviolent opposition groups have called for unity, claiming that the fight for freedom is no longer a personal struggle to be taken up risking lives at sea or in the jungles of Central America en route to the United States. Now, this  struggle must be confronted on the island itself and for the good of all Cubans.

Due to my extensive work with the Cuban American National Foundation, a Cuban exile organization, I have interacted with these on-island civil society members and have supported them to raise awareness about the oppression and lack of human rights on the island through training sessions and community-based programs.

Now more than ever, the Cuban exile community is committed to supporting the efforts of our brothers and sisters on the island. Efforts include calling for democratic change for the people of Cuba, denouncing the beatings and jailing of dissidents by the Castro regime, sending material aid and humanitarian assistance and spreading the message of Cuban civilians to a global audience since the government restricts a free press and internet.

As my good friend, Cuban independent journalist and activist Henry Constantín, said best, our people are at an unprecedented crossroad: “Now that we no longer have wet feet or dry feet, we Cubans will have to choose between firm and dignified feet, or feet of subservience and poverty.” I have no doubt that these feet are marching toward freedom.

GABRIELLA MAS is a junior in the College.

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