Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Can we talk?

This year’s election gives us a clear contrast between candidates with differing views on diplomacy in general, and specifically regarding Cuba.

Senator Obama says it is “ridiculous” to think that “somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them.” He says he is “willing to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe. [Obama] will do the careful preparation necessary, but will signal that America is ready to come to the table, and that he is willing to lead.”

Senator McCain says that Obama is mistaken: “Senator Obama proposes to conduct presidential summit meetings with the world’s worst dictators…While [McCain] supports robust diplomacy with our allies and adversaries, he would not rush to bestow the prestige of unconditional presidential meetings on the world’s worst dictators.” (Click on “Foreign Policy” here.)

The McCain charge about a “rush” to “presidential meetings” is in response to an Obama answer at last year’s CNN/YouTube Democratic debate. Asked if he would be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries,” Obama said, “I would.” He went on to criticize President Bush’s foreign policy and to praise the way Presidents Kennedy and Reagan conducted relations with adversaries such as the Soviet Union.

Obama has since emphasized that he is not looking for “a social gathering” with Raul Castro, and that his diplomacy with Cuba would involve “careful preparation” and a “clear agenda” to “advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.” (See his May 23 Miami speech here.)

So the issue is joined. Since it is central to Obama’s critique of the Bush foreign policy, and because McCain won’t let Obama forget his “I would” answer in the CNN/YouTube debate, the argument will surely continue. Coupled with Obama’s proposal to end restrictions on Cuban American travel and family remittances, and McCain’s opposition to that proposal – and a neat division on that issue between the three Miami Congressional incumbents and their Democratic challengers – it makes for a clear choice in Miami-Dade in November.

Now, what if we actually did try to start talks with Cuba?

Senator Obama looks for a dialogue that would get to the big political issues. Apart from the fact that he envisions a direct diplomatic approach, his idea isn’t very different from tit-for-tat offers that President Bush has made on a few occasions. From Obama’s Miami speech:

“I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That's the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy.”

My bet is that it’s far more likely that the two countries, if they were to meet and listen to each other’s proposals for talks, would start small.

They could revive the twice-yearly discussions about the implementation of the Clinton-era migration accords, which President Bush has honored, and about which both sides have complaints.

They could talk about law enforcement issues involving alien smuggling, drug trafficking, and other matters. President Bush, following President Clinton’s practice, has continued to assign a U.S. Coast Guard officer to our diplomatic mission in Havana – a sign that even an Administration that is skeptical of Havana’s intentions judges that the Cuban government cooperates usefully in some law enforcement matters.

They could talk about terrorism and related issues – Havana’s proposal that the two sides reach a formal agreement on anti-terrorism cooperation, Washington’s desire to secure the return from Cuba of fugitives from American justice, and more.

If the U.S. negotiators were to follow President Reagan’s model, they could propose sports, cultural, academic, and other exchanges – in both directions.

Finally, considering all the talk about Cuba drilling for oil in its Gulf waters, and U.S. desire to protect Florida’s marine environment, it seems negligent not to have experts on both sides talk about what would happen, and what they would all do, in the event of a spill.

Time will tell if a future American government would be interested in pursuing these issues, and if Cuba would be interested. When Senator Obama gave his speech in Miami, the coverage in Cuban media was pretty straightforward, which makes me guess that for Cuba’s part, the answer is, “If you are interested in talking, so are we.”


Anonymous said...

Bushies and his exile cronies are scared of talking. They think we should be scared of dictators instead of talking with them.

Their argument that meetings "give legitimacy" is pure bunk. Reagan and JFK, all the rest of us presidents , as well as the rest of the world besides bushies, have consensus here.

Anonymous said...

None of potential agenda items in this post merit direct presidential involvement. Cuba is not a geopolitical force that must be dealt with as one would deal with China or the Soviets, or Brazil for that matter.

Phil Peters said...

I agree that those issues wouldn't require direct Presidential involvement. Whether a future President would want to put them in a larger Cuba initiative is another matter. But those specific issues have all been treated without direct Presidential involvement in the past, and that could be done again if a future Administration were so inclined.

Anonymous said...

We can travel to China and Vietnam freely and without restrictions. As American citizens living in a free society, we should be able to travel to Cuba freely and without restrictions.