Foreign Policy

You Call That Audacity?

Barack Obama's mushy message on Cuba

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"Experience keeps a dear school," said Benjamin Franklin, "but fools will learn in no other." But if someone who will learn only from painful experience is a fool, what do you call someone who won't learn from painful experience? Answer: a supporter of our policy toward Cuba.

For nearly half a century, the United States has maintained an economic embargo in an effort to dislodge Fidel Castro from power. The 81-year-old dictator, however, has easily outlasted a succession of American presidents bent on his political demise. Even today, with the dictator incapacitated by poor health, his regime looks more durable than the British monarchy.

A plausible conclusion is that if our boycott didn't achieve its purpose in the 20th century, it will not do so in the 21st. Yet it remains firmly in place, unchallenged by either Republicans or Democrats.

The other day, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) reopened the discussion of Cuba policy with an op-ed column in The Miami Herald that accused President Bush of "blundering," stressed the need to "help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime, and promised to "grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island."

This may sound like a bold and refreshing attempt to overhaul our Cuba policy. In fact, it's a cheerful embrace of a strategy that has proved its futility year after year. The crucial message of his article is not how much Obama would change President Bush's approach, but how little.

The rules against travel to Cuba, long part of our policy, have grown tighter under Bush. This crackdown has gotten a strange reception among Cuban-Americans. A poll last year of those in south Florida found that only 28 percent disapprove of the president's overall Cuba policy, but 45 percent oppose his efforts to keep them from visiting or sending money to their relatives there.

Anyone who expected the Democratic takeover of Congress to make a difference on Cuba must have been hallucinating. House Democrats have done everything possible to show they can match anyone for blind obstinacy.

In past years, under GOP control, the House voted several times to make it easier for U.S. farmers to sell their crops in Cuba. But when a similar bill came to a floor vote this year, it got trounced. A bill to ease the travel rules, meanwhile, hasn't even gotten a committee hearing.

By supporting more travel, Obama proved himself to be less timid than Hillary Clinton, who shuns the idea. But even his proposal offers less than meets the eye. He does not suggest anything so revolutionary as, say, letting all Americans decide for themselves whether to visit Castro's tropical prison camp. The only people he would allow to go, or send money, would be Cuban-Americans.

As for our vain effort to starve Havana into submission, Obama says he would be willing to "ease" the blockade—not lift it, merely ease it—only if, after Fidel is gone, the "government begins opening Cuba to democratic change." Well, imagine that.

It's not bad enough that the embargo has been the diplomatic equivalent of the Chicago Cubs—an infallible loser for an astonishing length of time. It's also at odds with our approach to most other communist governments, most notably China. There, we trust that over time, commerce and contact with the West will undermine state control and foster freedom. The experience of recent years validates that belief. Yet the U.S. government takes the position that any policy appropriate to China cannot possibly work in Cuba.

The explanation for this lapse in logic is political. Cuban-Americans mostly support the embargo, and they constitute a small but active voting bloc in Florida—a state that can easily decide a presidential election (as it did in 2000). So both parties are leery of challenging the status quo.
Obama's proposal would be notable if it risked losing votes among Cuban-Americans. In fact, it roughly approximates the position taken by John Kerry in 2004.

It may not be a shock to find that the Illinois senator, who vows to change the way Washington works, plans no such change when it comes to how Washington works on Cuba. But it does suggest that the only place to find Obama and audacity in close proximity is on the cover of his book.

COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. Good column, although expecting a R or D presidential candidate to espouse a position that would 1) alienate a voting bloc perceived as solidly in favor of a position that 2) no other, competing voting bloc is against, is madness. If, say, the cigar trend a few years back had been a little bigger and lasted longer, there might have developed a larger constituency in favor of trade with Cuba. That, or if the Chicago Cubs had the rights to 5 Cuban players who were so good, they’d almost guarantee a World Series win. Then you’d hear an Illinois politican like Obama talk about ending the embargo.

    Another related item that needs to end is sugar price support. ?Viva la Confection!

  2. So I take it that Obama’s campaign strategy consists of staking out slightly less hawkish positions than Hillary or Bush, and sticking to bold declarations on issues that other candidates could care less about.

  3. It doesn’t make sense, unless the White House matters. Florida’s electoral votes have kept this failed embargo on life support longer than anything else could.

    That having been said, I have no problem with what Obama is proposing.

  4. Cuban-Americans mostly support the embargo, and they constitute a small but active voting bloc in Florida-a state that can easily decide a presidential election (as it did in 2000).

    My question is, why are the Cuban-Americans so uniformly behind the embargo? Wouldn’t they understand more than anyone how the embargo gives Castro a prepackaged demon to blame for the poverty and an excuse for repression? Is this just a case of “we gotta do something, even if this particular something makes no sense”?

  5. If, say, the cigar trend a few years back had been a little bigger and lasted longer…

    Christ, I hadn’t thought of this in a while. That was some annoying shit, right there.

    Sure Obama’s proposed changes are a half measure, but what other candidate has been willing to touch it? This is the third rail of Florida politics.

  6. Anonymo (if that is your real name) – Counterproductive, useless policy that winds up helping the people it’s supposed to hurt, and hurting the people it’s supposed to help. All while spawning many negative externalities. Remind you of the drug war at all?

    de stijl – Agreed about the annoying shit that was the cigar craze. If the smokers could have gotten rid of the dumbass embargo, though, it might have been worth it. Just.

  7. Baked –

    1/2 the delegation is not from Chicago, and pretty much all downstaters (Cards fans) would vote to keep the Cubbies down.

    Re: cigars. I have heard that Hand-dipped Cuban cigars sure beat the “El Producto (Lewinsky)” ones that tubby “smoked”…

  8. How Chapman managed to read a coherent policy statement out of that mush is beyond me.

    Puppies are nice. I like puppies. George Bush did something that isn’t nice. To puppies. I won’t to that. I’ll be nice. To the nice puppies.

  9. Oh, and someone needs to note that while Obama’s policy may not be satisfactory, John Edwards would have no idea what country we’re talking about.

  10. Moose – Don’t suppose S. Illinois is big cigar country, either. As for your second point, at least Monica isn’t as likely to get oral cancer. And if some study determines she is, anyone who passes on that info to my girlfriend does so under pain of death…

  11. It’s not bad enough that the embargo has been the diplomatic equivalent of the Chicago Cubs…

    I take exception to that!

    The cubs have been much more successful than the embargo.

    And I am a Cardianl Fan!

  12. My question is, why are the Cuban-Americans so uniformly behind the embargo? Wouldn’t they understand more than anyone how the embargo gives Castro a prepackaged demon to blame for the poverty and an excuse for repression? Is this just a case of “we gotta do something, even if this particular something makes no sense”?

    From disussion with those who purported to be Cuban-Americans on the Free Republic website many years ago, my take is that Cuban-Americans like the embargo, but then use loopholes to get their own money into Cuba.

    That is, they don’t like other people from the U.S. getting money to Cuba (by visiting or trade), but they like to give their own money, so people in Cuba view them as caring souls.

    That’s a recollected impression from many years ago (more than six). And maybe only 1-3 people (who self-identified as Cuban American…but who were possibly bored South Koreans ;-)).

  13. Baked:

    good call. Downstate Illinois (south of I 80) is also known as the “land of the dropped chromosome”.

    and don’t worry. your secret is safe with me. I swore on our extra-secret decoder rings we got that one time in the mutantly-large box of cracker jacks after band camp practice!

  14. Dammit! *Cardinal fan.

  15. Shorter Steve Chapman:
    “Obama’s Cuba policy is less bad than all the other (major) candidates. What a jerk!”

  16. Look these terrorists..uh..communitst need to be stopped. If we don’t stop them in Havana we will face them in Miami.

  17. ahem.

    what you saying VM?

    land of the dropped chromosome, hmph.

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