The Republican response to President Barack Obama's historic opening toward Cuba this week has generally been awful and dispiriting to behold. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for example, was the politician most single-handedly responsible for the United States re-establishing diplomatic relations with still-communist Vietnam two decades ago, saying at the time:
Instead of vainly trying to isolate Vietnam, the United States should test the proposition that greater exposure to Americans will render Vietnam more susceptible to the influence of our values. Vietnam's human rights record needs substantial improvement. We should make good use of better relations with the Vietnamese to help advance in that country a decent respect for the rights of man.
What does McMaverick say now, with his co-conspirator Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)?
It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America's influence in the world.
The gap in both the writing and sentiment in those two passages speaks volumes about how far GOP foreign-policy thinking has degenerated over time. (It also speaks to McCain's own 100% malleability on key issues—back in 2000 he said "I'm not in favor of sticking my finger in the eye of Fidel Castro. In fact, I would favor a road map towards normalization of relations such as we presented to the Vietnamese and led to a normalization of relations between our two countries.")
Two senatorial exceptions to that rule have been Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated lifting the U.S. embargo, telling Reason TV in 2011 that "If someone's going to limit my travel, it should be a communist, not my own government"; and also Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who came out in qualified support of Obama's actions yesterday. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who unlike most of his GOP colleagues actually has deep knowledge about the subject, shot back at Paul, saying "he has no idea what he's talking about." Paul has now fired back on Twitter and with a Time op-ed. Here's more from Rubio's argument:
[W]hat the president is saying, by recognizing Cuba's government is that in the 21st century being a Communist, brutal dictatorship is an acceptable form of government.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee really should know by now, diplomatic recognition confers no such acceptance. The United States has long recognized communist Laos (recognition since 1950, commie since '75*), China (1979), and Vietnam (1995). Among the brutal dictatorships that contain U.S. embassies are Burma (relations established in 1948), Uganda (1962), Equatorial Guinea (1968), Zimbabwe (1980), Turkmenistan (1991), Uzbekistan (1991), and Eritrea (1993). When Marco Rubio was a teenager, most of the world by population was not free. Would he have had his sainted Ronald Reagan rip up diplomatic relations with scores of countries, beginning with the Evil Empire itself? That is not how U.S. diplomacy has ever worked.
Again, Rubio is actually better on Cuba than most Republicans on Capitol Hill, and in his passionate press conference Wednesday he threw some accurate cold water on the moment, reminding people that the Cuban government could re-jail its 53 released political prisoners overnight (remember: there was a similar release associated with the 1998 visit to the island by the Pope, which was followed five years later by a brutal crackdown against dissidents and civil society). Obama's announcement that Cuba's sponsor-of-terror designation would now be up for review was a cynical reminder that such labels are almost purely political and expedient. Giddy predictions of Cuba's imminent collapse will likely prove bollocks. And I can always respect a man whose righteous indignation at human rights abuses extends to both Havana and Riyadh.
But Rubio and the GOP are wrong, and wildly so, about a number of their Obama-Cuba critiques. This move was not "appeasement"; increased American travel and remittances do not "only" serve "to benefit the regime," and this does not mark a retreat from fighting for the freedom of Cubans.
Today's announcement…is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.
You can find more A-word arguments from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Sen.-elect Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethinen (R-Florida), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas), Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, John Bolton, Charles Krauthammer, Jennifer Rubin, Linda Chavez, Rush Limbaugh, National Review, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, for starters.
But how, precisely, is this appeasement? The U.S. got one of its longtime intelligence operatives, plus an innocent-seeming human rights activist, out of Cuban prisons in exchange for three genuinely awful Cuban spies whose work was linked to the death of Americans. Now, that two-for-three swap is certainly unequal, and may indeed (as Rubio worries) incentivize bad actors to take innocent Americans hostage in the future, but as Israel for one can certainly testify, sometimes countries that genuinely value their own citizens' lives accept numerically and morally disproportionate prisoner exchanges. Frustrating, yes, but not definitionally appeasement. Should Reagan have left Nick Daniloff rot in Soviet prison just because he, too, was most likely a hostage?
The more common argument for the A-word in this case is that allowing for more American travel and remittances to the island will somehow strengthen the Castro brothers' hand. Here's Rubio:
This administration's attempts to loosen restrictions on travel in recent years have only served to benefit the regime.
Now, thanks to President Obama's concessions, the regime in Cuba won't have to change.
The entire policy shift is based on the illusion—in fact, on the lie—that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. Cuba already enjoys access to commerce, money and goods from other nations, and yet the Cuban people are still not free. They are not free because the regime—just as it does with every aspect of life—manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island. More economic engagement with the U.S. means that the regime's grip on power will be strengthened for decades to come—dashing the Cuban people's hopes for freedom and democracy.
Rubio, to my knowledge, has never visited Cuba outside of the U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay facility. My 1998 experience of attempting to live in Havana convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that three of the most important and attainable things Cubans need, both for their basic human dignity and for their struggle against their totalitarian overlords, are 1) exposure to Americans; 2) increased access to non-governmental sources of money, and 3) increased access to information. Obama's moves help on all three fronts. Here's how I explained/described this line of thinking in a 2002 Reason piece:
Havana is famously seething with Cubans trying to pump dollars from tourists. Walk through the central city as a blond man in a white T-shirt, and you'll spend your days hearing the hissing "kss-kss!" sound of people trying to grab your attention. It isn't all about money scams, cheap cigars, and prostitutes. Just as often—maybe more often—the approaching strangers and instant friends just want to talk, to practice their foreign languages, to pepper you with questions about the outside world.
Who really killed Tupac? What are the lyrics to that Rage Against the Machine song, and what do they mean? How are the people doing in Budapest and Prague now? Do American girls like Cuban men? What do the people think about Bill Clinton? Why does your country keep insisting on the bloqueo? How famous is Gloria Estefan? Why isn't Luis Tiant in the Hall of Fame? These are all questions I heard during my month there.
There are many things in Havana to be shocked by: the rotted buildings, the child prostitution, the high price of Cuban beer, the suffocating role of the state in virtually all human transactions. But the thing I found most appalling was the culture of information. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
The daily newspaper, Granma, is thin, horribly written, and used primarily for toilet paper (what with the shortages and all). The director of Cuba's sports Hall of Fame could not tell me how many members it had. It took me a week of asking dedicated baseball fans to find out how one could obtain a schedule for upcoming games. Periodical libraries—filled with glorious back issues of Havana's handsome and competitive round-the-clock newspapers from before World War II—are off-limits to most ordinary Cubans.
Even though people are generally smart and jaded enough to tune out the government's propaganda, they don't have much of anything to replace it with, except for the odd BBC broadcast—and contact with foreign tourists. Every conversation with an American about the U.S. undermines Fidel Castro by definition, because it surely contradicts the banal lies he and his media mouth on a daily basis.
Even if you don't take my commie-hatin' word for it, try to think step-by-step through the notion that more U.S. tourists and money = more power for the Castros. Rubio claims that "the regime…manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island." That's just false.
If I hand a Cuban friend $100 in Havana, that Cuban now has $100 (which is four or five times the average monthly salary). Now, that friend may pay consumption taxes on things he buys with that $100 at a state-owned store, or pay taxes on the interest he earns by depositing the sum, but the bulk of the transaction goes to the individual Cuban, on terms that the Cuban governmet cannot "control." Yes, increased transfers from Americans to Cubans will no doubt increase the net receipts of the Cuban government. But it will also doubtlessly increase the share of the island's total money owned by individuals. It will, in other words, increase individual autonomy in one of the most repressed countries on earth.
In return for this net gain, the communist government puts itself in danger of losing, or at least eroding, its last remaining piece of effective propaganda: the lie that the U.S. embargo and related skullduggery is the principal source of Cuban misery.
Once upon a time, "appeasement" meant ceding the Sudetenland to an expansionist Adolf Hitler without even allowing Czechs a seat at the negotiating table. Now it somehow means a two-for-three prisoner swap, a slight easing on unconscionable restrictions against Americans, promises of 53 political prisoners being freed, the same diplomatic engagement the U.S. has had with Venezuela since 1835, and a net increase in individual Cuban latitude? Republicans not named Paul or Flake (or Amash) may want to start rethinking their hyperbole. Sadly, there's little reason to believe that they will.
* Clarified from original.