In Cuba, low-hanging fruit for Obama
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By: Bernd Debusmann
February 25th, 2009
– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –
A look at a list of the foreign policy problems facing U.S. President Barack Obama could send the sunniest optimist into depression.
The Arab-Israeli conflict: no solution in sight. Afghanistan/Pakistan: the outlook is bleak. Iran and its nuclear plans: tricky. No easy wins here. Iraq: the war is not over.
But in the foreign policy landscape, there is one low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking — Cuba - and the picking has just been made easier by a report commissioned by the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and released this week.
Among its key points: the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the only Cold War policy still in force, has been counter-productive; U.S. policies are harming national security interests by impeding cooperation on such key issues as narcotics traffic; and the U.S. image in Latin America has been tarnished by Washington’s insistence that the region share hostility towards Cuba’s communist government.
That government, first under Fidel Castro and now under his brother Raul, survived the hostility of 10 American presidents preceding Obama. It has normal relations with most of the world. Washington’s lonely stand on Cuba becomes embarrassingly apparent once a year when the U.N. General Assembly votes on lifting the embargo. The last count was 185 in favour, three against - The U.S., Israel and Palau.
In much of Latin America, Cuba has become a romanticized symbol of a small country that has stood up to the American giant. That image is exploited to the full in the anti-American rhetoric of such leaders as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, whose appeal rests in part on painting Uncle Sam as an Imperialist bully.
“Latin Americans would view U.S. engagement with Cuba as a demonstration that the United States understands their perspectives on the history of U.S. policy in the region and no longer insists that all of Latin America must share U.S. hostility to a 50-year-old regime,” the Foreign Relations Committee staff report said. “The resulting improvement to the United States’ image in the region would facilitate the advancement of U.S. interests.”
Portraying normal relations with Cuba as something that serves U.S. national interests strengthens the case of a growing number of lawmakers and business groups who think it is time to remove the last vestige of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere. It would also provide backing for Obama if he were inclined to go beyond his campaign promises on Cuba — easing restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba and sending money to relatives there.
CHANGE EASY, OVERDUE
In the words of Steve Clemons, a Latin America expert at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, Cuba is “the lowest hanging ripe fruit on America’s tree of foreign policy options. Change is easy there — and overdue.”
There are two main reasons why Cuba policy has remained stuck in the Cold War, 18 years after it ended. For one, a succession of U.S. presidents expected that economic pressure on Cuba would topple the government and bring democracy to the island.
As importantly, Cuba has been as much a domestic issue as a foreign policy issue. For decades, the most determined opposition to changing policy on Cuba has come from the Cuban American community in Florida, a state which has often been decisive in presidential elections. No candidate has been willing to risk his campaign by offending the Cuban exiles, estimated at around 650,000.
But polls show that anti-Castro feeling is easing and the old guard of exiles is being replaced by a younger generation not as burdened as their elders by memories of fleeing the bearded revolutionaries who took power in 1959.
Obama won Florida last November, after a campaign during which he promised to ease restrictions on travel and cash remittances while saying the time was not ripe for an end to the embargo. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has described the embargo as “an important source of leverage for further change on the island”.
The thinking behind this phrase: Cuba must make concessions on human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of travel in exchange for the U.S. lifting the embargo. If not regime change in Cuba, then at least behavior change. Why this policy should work now when it has failed in the past is anyone’s guess.
And the argument is particularly difficult to make for Clinton after a February trip to China, a worse human rights violator than Cuba. She said disagreement with Beijing over human rights should not interfere with cooperation on broader issues. There’s no lack of broader issues in relations between the United States and Cuba.
– You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com