Yes We Can Pander!

Obama's Overlooked Cuba Speech

If you doubt that the big broadcast and print media outlets are, for the most, in the tank for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), quickly skim the transcript of the Democratic frontrunner’s speech in Miami last Friday. Obama travelled to Little Havana to engage in some election-year genuflection, that ritualistic demonstration of fealty to Cuban exiles performed by almost every presidential candidate since Fidel Castro took possession of the island in 1959. Obama pandered, the media swooned—and a few interesting policy shifts were curiously ignored.

In his speech to the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), Obama thundered that he would only accept “libertad” for the captive nation of Cuba, and promised to pave “the road to freedom for all Cubans” by securing “justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair.” How this elusive goal would be achieved was rather predictably left unsaid.

After the platitudes about freedom and the obligatory Jose Marti citations, Obama staked out a handful of substantive policy positions. If elected, he said, an Obama administration would end the Bush administration’s draconian and counterproductive limits on both family travel and cash remittances sent to Cuba, a policy opposed by a majority of Cuban-Americans.

It was but one policy proposal—a good one, for sure—and the following day’s New York Times dispatch led with it: “Senator Barack Obama on Friday called for greater engagement with Cuba and Latin America, saying the long-standing policies of isolation have failed to advance the interests of the United States or help people who have suffered under oppressive governments.”

Dig deeper into the speech—and the Times account—and you'll find that there are significant limits to Obama’s policies of engagement. During his 2004 Senate campaign Obama declared that it was "time for us to end the embargo with Cuba.... It's time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed." But Cubans don’t influence Illinois senate races like they do Florida presidential contests. And while another Times article declared that “Change Comes to Miami,” the real news is that Obama is merely interested in tinkering with America’s Cuba policy, not substantially changing it.

“I will maintain the embargo,” he said to cheers from CANF members. “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.”

Wasn’t it this claim—a rather significant policy shift—that should have made the news? In an article headlined “Taking a new approach to Cuba,” the Los Angeles Times mentioned that Cuba had been embargoed for 47 years, and that the brave senator “plunged boldly into these uncharted political waters” by suggesting a repeal of the Bush travel and remittance policy, but didn’t find the space to mention that Obama abandoned—at least temporarily—his support for lifting the embargo.

A writer at The Huffington Post hailed Obama’s “gutsy” and “sensible” speech and noted that CANF founder Jorge Mas Canosa “was a notorious Reagan-era warhorse who made his career as a leader of the embargo-industrial complex.” On Obama’s embargo pander, it was noted, with significant understatement, that “he hasn't pronounced himself ready just yet to let go of the entire embargo.”

The Boston Globe focused on another, less newsworthy aspect of the speech: “Obama: Bush fostered Chavez rise: ‘Negligent’ foreign policy created void.” It’s a dubious claim, one belied by the chronology of Chavez’s political successes, but Obama’s denunciation of Bush’s foreign policy legacy only distracted from his own bellicose—and well-formulated—anti-Chavez rhetoric.

Sounding like a mellifluous, hope-spreading version of Otto Reich, Obama slammed Chavez’s “predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy” that “offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.” Bolivarianism is, he said, a “stale vision.” He warned that “Iran has drawn closer to Venezuela, and just the other day Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with their windfall oil profits.” Hugo Chavez is a “democratically elected leader. But we also know that he does not govern democratically.”

All of which is true, of course. By focusing on his shaky claim that it was Bush who “lost Venezuela,” almost all press reports ignored Obama’s expressed support for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s controversial attack on a FARC outpost in Ecuadorian territory. After the raid that killed FARC commander Raul Reyes, The New York Times editorialized that the strike “was an infringement of Ecuador’s sovereignty” and advised the two countries to “settle their differences through diplomatic means” with a guarantee “that such forays will not be repeated.”

Obama disagrees, telling his anti-Castro and anti-Chavez audience that his administration “will support Colombia’s right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders” and advising that “strong sanctions” be levied against Venezuela for its support of FARC and Chavez be diplomatically “isolated.” The latter point confused ABC News reporter Jake Tapper, who wondered, after Obama expressed a willingness to engage Chavez without preconditions, if “he will meet with the leader of a country he simultaneously says should be isolated.”

And while accusing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) of wanting to continue the current administration’s failed Cuba policy, Obama told the crowd that he could be counted on as supporting another failed policy—the drug war. “When I am President, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program” with Colombia, though he recently opposed the passage of a free-trade agreement with the country. (Speaking of Obama’s skills as a soft-power diplomat, President Uribe responded to Obama’s opposition to the free trade agreement by saying that he “deplored” Obama’s position.)

There were other moments of hawkishness that were largely ignored. “The United States,” Obama declared, “must be a relentless advocate for democracy.” Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., he said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And: “I will never, ever, compromise the cause of liberty. And unlike John McCain, I would never, ever, rule out a course of action that could advance the cause of liberty.”

But what does any of this mean? It’s easy to get the heads nodding in furious agreement: We can—oh yes we can!—liberate Cuba! But how does one relentlessly advocate for democracy without, say, irritating the likes of Hugo Chavez? As Obama said in Miami, the Bush administration’s rhetoric has “so alienated [us] from the rest of the Americas” that extreme leftism “has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua.”

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  • Other Matt||

    Obama pander? joe, say it ain't so!

  • 455||

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  • Guy Montag||

    Who is this 455 guy and why are you letting them spam every thread?

  • ed||

    Isn't an expose on political pandering like an expose on wet water or blue skies?
    We're so far gone ethically that it's no longer considered cynical to point this out.

  • Brandon||

    "Who is this 455 guy and why are you letting them spam every thread?"

    He's lonewacko's bastard lovechild.

  • ||

    I went to 455's blog and left a comment asking him to knock it off.

  • ||

    ... which was immediately deleted.

  • Colin||

    Don't worry -- Obama's just lying to those people to get their votes.

    As soon as he's elected, he'd kiss Castro's boots and declare undying fidelity to ideals of the great Revolution.

  • Guy Montag||

    Colin for the quick thread win!

    Castro's boots and declare undying fidelity

  • J||

    I disagree with Colin's point, but I love the way he said it.

  • ed||

    He was going to say raulity but that would be too subtle.

  • ||

    A politician makes policy statements that he will later ignore in order to pander to an audience..

    In other news, the sun rose in the east today.

  • ||

    But how does one relentlessly advocate for democracy without, say, irritating the likes of Hugo Chavez? As Obama said in Miami, the Bush administration's rhetoric has "so alienated [us] from the rest of the Americas" that extreme leftism "has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua."

    I think the model here is Ronald Reagan's Gorbachev-era combination of strong public statements and personal diplomacy.

  • Abdul||

    I think the model here is Ronald Reagan's Gorbachev-era combination of strong public statements and personal diplomacy.

    You forgot the third prong supporting anti-Communist wars wherever anti-communists could be found. Many of them were found in South and Central America and the dirty little wars that resulted were not highly thought of by the left.

  • ||

    But, Abdul, as it turned out, the "rollback" theory that revolved around supporting those dirty little wars had absolutely nothing to do with the end of the Soviet Union.

    The Soviet Empire fell in Berlin and Moscow, not in Havana or Managua. It wasn't "rolled back," it collapsed from the inside out. That's why the "outposts" are still there, and the empire itself gone.

    Containment, engagement, and patience while its own failures grew brought down the Soviet Union. All we did in backing those death squads was give the Soviets propaganda victories.

  • Abdul||

    Joe,

    I think you're wrong on two counts. First, Havana is the sole outpost. Nicaragua elected Violeta Chamorro, ousting the old communist Sandinistas. True, Ortega came back recently, but as some kind of Communist who found Jesus forming a coalition party with non-communists. He's definitely some shade of red, but I hardly think that counts as an outpost when there was a 16 year commie-free interim.

    Second--backing every dirty war did more than hand the Soviets propaganda victories (and it's not like the Soviet-backed side didn't hand us some share of those, too). It forced the Soviets to match our defense spending or lose influence. Our GDP could support that kind of expansion, theirs couldn't. It was part of Reagan and Don Regan's strategy.

  • Other Matt||

    You forgot the third prong supporting anti-Communist wars wherever anti-communists could be found. Many of them were found in South and Central America and the dirty little wars that resulted were not highly thought of by the left.

    Shame! Shame! Thou shalt not interrupt joe's Obama fellating excusatory bullshit! It's much to humorous to see what contortions and convolutions he'll go to to say it was all for nothing and Obama really didn't contradict himself and...hey, look, over there! A pony!

    People make the mistake of assuming the Soviet Union is a government. It's more like the mob. If you look at it and treat it such, it makes much more sense. It was somewhat less of a collapse than a turnover in mob families.

    All of which really has nothing to do with Chavez, where there's an Obamalike cult hero that says one thing and institutes socialism when elected, basically on the back of the people who want to get what they can from others (kinda eerie, but I digress). Economically, it's a Ponzi scheme, but he can pull it off for a while longer due to inflated oil prices making his asphalt laden crude suddenly economical to distill into gasoline.

    All in all, though, it has nothing to do with Obama's apparant reversal of thought, re:Cuba, based simply on who he was pandering to. That pretty much stands where it is, even joe ain't sayin it isn't so.

  • ||

    I agree, Abdul, that was the strategy, though we may disagree on how much the collapse of the Soviet Union can be attributed to it. Communism (and socialism) has natural economic failure built in to it, but our policies may have accelerated it. It's hard to say to what to degree, though.

  • ||

    Abdul,

    Sole outpost? North Korea, Vietnam, Laos? That they are still there, while Russia and Poland and "East Germany" are now republics, would seem to indicate that the empire wasn't rolled back, but toppled from within.

    It forced the Soviets to match our defense spending or lose influence. The dirty little wars in places like Central America cost the Soviets peanuts. The real economic/military race came in the form of ICBMs, air forces, ground forces, and other main-force military contests. A few crates of old AK-47s is not what bankrupted the Soviets.

    And, frankly, even that military spending contest was less important than the fact that the Soviet economic system didn't work very well. That's what really bankrupted the Warsaw Pact.

  • ||

    But, and this is what's important here, even as Reagan was both outspending the Soviets, and giving Berlin Wall speeches, he was also aggresively pursuing diplomacy with them.

    It was actually, in my view, one of the most remarkably acts of leadership in American history that Ronald Reagan, the great rollbacker and hater of detente, was able to recognize that the containment he denounced had worked, the end game was here, the collapse/reform it was meant to produce had come, and it was time to hold talks.

    Do you know what George Will wrote the day after Reagan and Gorbachev signed their deal in Iceland? "Yesterday will be remembered as the day the United States lost the Cold War."

  • ||

    Do you know what George Will wrote the day after Reagan and Gorbachev signed their deal in Iceland? "Yesterday will be remembered as the day the United States lost the Cold War."

    I refuse to believe that. It is possible that an alien projecting a George Will holographic appearance wrote that, but the man himself could never have been that wrong.

  • ||

    Well, Chris, it's the old "talking is appeasement, diplomacy is surrender" ideology that's so prevalent on the right.

  • ||

    Well, Chris, it's the old "talking is appeasement, diplomacy is surrender" ideology that's so prevalent on the right.

    I also agree that it is prevalent on the right, but not necessarily because "people on the right are stupid and people on the left are smart." It is more likely a common thought because of debacles like Israeli/Palestinian "peace" treaties and, yes, things like the Munich Agreement. It is wrongheaded to think that you should never negotiate, but that doesn't mean you should always negotiate. Reagan was right to negotiate with Gorbachev.

  • ||

    There have never been any Israeli/Palestinian peace treaties.

    There was an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. And and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

  • Joe Mawmah||

    Obama, McCain, Duhbya...same old same old.

  • ||

    I'm still chuckling over the phrase that Moynihan pulled off of a HuffPo blog: "the embargo-industrial complex." So there's a large association of industries who are in the business of not doing business with Cuba? Doesn't sound very profitable to me.

    It gets me every time some lefty complains about how Cuba is hurt by the embargo (often mislabeled a "blockade"). Hello, according to communist theory, isn't the embargo good for Cuba, because it prevents the evil US capitalists from exploiting them? Their position boils down to: "Cubans are poor under communism because the capitalists can't practice enough capitalism with them." That's a statement most of us around here would agree with, but it also means there's no justification for Castro's regime.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    As Obama said in Miami, the Bush administration's rhetoric has "so alienated [us] from the rest of the Americas" that extreme leftism "has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua."

    ***

    Why would an extreme leftist like Obama, be upset over the extreme leftism making inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua?

  • ||

    Because Obama isn't "an extreme leftist"?

    I realize it warms the prickles of your little heart to throw "extreme leftist" at anyone left of Genghis Khan, but what you want to believe isn't especially so. It's an incredibly dumb form of argument as well--"leftist" and "rightist" only makes sense once you define "left" and "right" in relation to WHAT. I'd stop using the terms altogether.

  • ||

    Sheesh, grumpy, how about we define "left" and "right" in relation to the center of American politics, the way most people do? It's imprecise shorthand, granted, but it's more or less what we have.

  • ||

    Obama would end the embargo. But not because he likes free trade or wants to liberate Cuba. He doesn't think of Cuba as needing liberation.

    Not really; the Communists are just old-fashioned reformers, well-meaning but heavy-handed, whose methods are obsolete and who need to retire.

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