Monday, November 3, 2014

Controlled panic on Calle Ocho

A smart friend reminds me regularly that everyone is talking about a coming change in U.S. policy toward Cuba – except the officials who make that policy in the U.S. government.

Still, the talk has provoked unease among embargo advocates, who may be wondering if the wheels are starting to come off the wagon that has dragged this foreign policy relic well into the 21st century.

For some time now they have tried to deny what Republican political operatives know – that the Cuban-American vote in Florida split evenly between President Obama and Governor Romney in 2012, that demographics dictate that Cuban-American support for the embargo will continue to decline, and that Cuban Americans are losing importance in Florida politics as Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have increased greatly in number.

They now see activism in their own community promoting engagement with Cuba (including this recent television ad urging voters to defend their right to travel), and it’s coming not from the Venceremos Brigade but rather from Cuban Americans who want change in Cuba and are not tied to el exilio’s ideas.

They are seeing a united front in Latin America and the Caribbean insisting that Cuba attend the next inter-American summit in Panama next April, and they see the Obama Administration accepting that political reality. A State Department official told reporters in Panama last month that the United States insists on the meeting’s “democratic character,” but “if the Cuban delegation comes, I believe it will be important that the region have the opportunity to hear its vision,” as well as “the vision of the United States, the Pacific Partnership, the countries of the Caribbean where democracy has prospered.” The result could be the first serious meeting between the Cuban and American heads of state since 1959, albeit in a multilateral setting. It would represent a normalization of sorts, where we deal with Cuba as we deal with others, expressing disagreement directly rather than through a policy of non-contact.

They see that the Cuban government is reacting to the Ebola crisis by sending hundreds of doctors to Africa to treat patients in dire need of care. The Obama Administration has welcomed Cuba’s help; our UN Ambassador says she is “proud” of the work of “American, European, and Cuban doctors” in Africa, and adds that while U.S. and Cuban missions “are not an integrated effort, we are working shoulder to shoulder.” You don’t need a poll to figure that most Americans dislike Cuba’s form of government but admire Cuba’s doctors and its government’s decision to contribute so strongly. But if your supreme goal is to prevent movement in U.S. policies toward Cuba, this is a big problem; the Cuban medical mission is “thinly disguised propaganda” and a U.S. official’s attendance at a meeting on Ebola in Havana is a “disgrace.”

They see a series of New York Times editorials calling on President Obama to normalize relations, including one today that calls for a prisoner swap to get USAID contractor Alan Gross home before he marks five years in jail. (The editorial prompted one dissident to tweet, “Let Alan rot!” – give him points for frankness!) No one likes prisoner exchanges, a sometimes distasteful but necessary adjunct to war and covert operations. If this involved any situation other than Cuba today, a swap would be effected to live up to the Administration’s responsibility to the man it sent to Cuba.

They see that the 2016 Presidential campaign, which is about to begin, will have something unprecedented: a major-party frontrunner calling not for re-examination or adjustments to Cuba policy, but for the end of the embargo itself. (Also, we may soon have a Florida governor-elect who opposes the embargo.) Secretary Clinton’s move is surprising because she, like President Clinton, used “tough” approaches toward Cuba to counter the Republican rap that the Democrats have a weak foreign policy. Her reversal leads to questions about how many more U.S. political figures might be prepared to reverse long-held positions on Cuba, as if they were held for convenience rather than conviction.

The pro-embargo forces, along with the rest of us, are left wondering about President Obama and his year-old musings about “updating” his Cuba policy. That policy has been largely to embrace and continue that of President Bush, except for some very constructive changes involving travel, remittances, and diplomatic contacts. The economic sanctions in effect in 2008 are almost entirely intact. It’s an approach deserving of President Obama’s favorite epithet – a “20th century” policy. If there’s conviction behind it, it’s hard to discern; it seems to be sustained by inertia. That inertia could last two more years, or it could be swept away by a decision to form an actual Obama policy toward eleven million neighbors in Cuba. That would make me a little skittish too.

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