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."

Like Candidate Bush in 2000, Obama is still getting his foreign policy bearings, still trying to find that measured voice. When Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer interviewed him last year, Obama "had trouble naming any head of state south of the U.S. border, and looked like a deer in the headlights when asked about the region's headlines of the day." All that, says Oppenheimer, has changed—Obama "has finally done his homework on Latin America."

But for those who desire the elimination of the embargo, we can only hope that, like his cynical denunciations of NAFTA, followed by reassurances to Canada that it was but a primary season pander, Obama is speaking with a forked tongue.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.