I have to admit, when I sat down to write about President Obama's change in America's Cuba policy, the first headline which suggested itself was: "Obama Does Exactly What He Said He Would Do -- Media Stunned." But then, that headline could apply to so many things these days, that I thought I needed to be a bit more specific.
While Obama's change in direction on Cuba is indeed stunning, it is not at all unexpected. Here is Barack Obama from the campaign trail, speaking in Miami last May:
Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century -- of elections that are anything but free or fair; of dissidents locked away in dark prison cells for the crime of speaking the truth. I won't stand for this injustice, you won't stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba.
Now I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians. Every four years, they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba. That's what John McCain did the other day. He joined the parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade. Instead of offering a strategy for change, he chose to distort my position, embrace George Bush's, and continue a policy that's done nothing to advance freedom for the Cuban people. That's the political posture that John McCain has chosen, and all it shows is that you can't take his so-called straight talk seriously.
My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Libertad. And the road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with 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.
Now let me be clear. John McCain's been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I'm looking for a social gathering. That's never what I've said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.
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. We've heard enough empty promises from politicians like George Bush and John McCain. I will turn the page.
It's time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It's time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That's why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.
I will maintain the embargo. 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.
Obama could not have been clearer about what he intended to do. You can quibble with the word "immediately," but that's about the only valid criticism to be made here. And President Obama has had a few other things on his plate (to put it mildly), so even though "immediately" turned out to take a few months, once again Obama is keeping a very explicit and concrete promise he made during the campaign.
Without a hint of irony, this is how the New York Times led its story on Obama's new Cuba policy:
In abandoning longstanding restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to family members on the island, President Obama demonstrated Monday that he was willing to open the door toward greater engagement with Cuba -- but at this point, only a crack.
The announcement represents the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades, and it is a reversal of the hard line taken by President George W. Bush. It comes as Mr. Obama is preparing to meet later this week in Trinidad and Tobago with Latin American leaders, who want him to normalize relations with Cuba and its leader, RaÃºl Castro.
The White House made clear on Monday that Mr. Obama, who campaigned on improving relations with Cuba, was not willing to go that far, at least not yet. Rather, the steps he took were modest, reflecting the complicated domestic politics around Cuba and the unpredictability of the Cuban response.
This volatility on both sides of the Florida Straits has bedeviled every president since Kennedy, and even Mr. Obama, who has vowed to make greater use of diplomacy with enemies as well as allies, seems to have recognized the threat.
As such, he did not lift the trade embargo with Cuba, enacted in the 1960s in an unsuccessful attempt to force a change in government after Fidel Castro came to power. Instead, he is using his executive power to repeal Mr. Bushâ€™s tight restrictions and the looser restrictions under President Bill Clinton so that Cuban-Americans can now visit Cuba as frequently as they like and send gifts and as much money as they want, as long as the recipients are not senior government or Communist Party officials.
The disconnect in this writing is just outrageous. The authors can't seem to make up their mind whether this is a big change, or (as one person is quoted later in the article saying) just "baby steps." It's as if that second paragraph arrived from space, unwritten by human hand, only to be ignored for the entire rest of the article. Come on, guys, is it "the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades" or not? Make up your minds before you type it out.
The authors try mightily to make it seem as if Obama had promised something entirely different while a candidate that he is now delivering as president. It takes a caricature of Obama put forth by his opponent as reality, rather than examining what Obama actually said he would do. It makes Obama seem like he is cautiously pulling back from something he campaigned on, when the reality is that he just did exactly what he said he would do, and he refused to do exactly what he said he would refuse to do.
Sheesh. Can we somehow elect a new media, on the slogan "news we can believe in" or something?
The more I read that article, the more I wonder how that second paragraph made it in there in the first place. Because it is right. This could wind up being the first step towards a massive realignment of America's Cuba policy. This policy stretches back decades, and is a relic of the Cold War which no longer serves any useful purpose.
Anyone who would defend our embargo of Cuba should be invited to explain the differences between U.S. policy on Cuba and Vietnam. Because it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. America has now given "most favored nation" trading status to both China and Vietnam -- both communist countries. China holds political prisoners in their jails. We fought (and lost) a war with the same government that now rules Vietnam. And yet we're fine with trading freely with both of them now, but refuse to do so with Cuba. Like I said, it makes no sense.
But there are two reasons why America may finally get over its Cold War snit with Cuba. The first is that Barack Obama could have won the presidency without winning Florida. And the second is generational. The Cubans in Florida are changing demographically. The die-hard anti-Castro faction is getting older and older. And the younger Cuban-Americans see things in a different light.
This sea change cannot be overstated. Up until now, virtually every politician with an eye on the White House has told Cubans in Florida exactly what they wanted to hear -- no change whatsoever in our irrational Cuba policy. Candidates were required to genuflect in front of this policy, or write off their chances in Florida entirely. It's like supporting corn in Iowa -- just something you had to do to get elected.
But this may now be changing. Obama did win Florida. And he is looking to the future, when both Castro brothers are gone, and America finally admits that the last forty or fifty years of embargo simply did not work.
With the lessening of political power of the anti-Castro crowd in Florida, the change in power within Cuba itself, and the growing calls for change on Cuba policy from some very conservative politicians from farm states (who would like to sell their products to Cuba), the stage is set for a complete realignment of America's Cuba policy. What Obama just did was to begin this process.
Obama frustrates and enrages media types because of his absolute refusal to focus on the "big story of the hour," instead choosing to thoughtfully implement long-term plans. This is yet another example of him doing so. Obama knows how foolish it would have been to try to scrap the Cuba embargo without testing the waters a bit first, and he knew it back when he was a candidate. He plans on using the lifting of the embargo as leverage in discussions with Cuba -- which, again, he said he would do back when he was a candidate. He picked the worst parts of our Cuba policy (Bush's rule which only let relatives visit Cuba once every three years) and threw them out. By doing so, he has focused people on the larger issue, and made a dramatic first step towards a discussion of how we should treat Cuba in the future, instead of remaining mired in the past policies of the Cold War.
He said what he was going to do, and then he did it. The only surprise is that anyone's surprised by any of this. How many more times am I going to sit down to write yet another article that I could title "Obama Does Exactly What He Said He Would Do -- Media Stunned," before the media finally figures out what to expect from our new president? How about this -- when they do figure it out, I promise I'll write an article and title it: "Media Finally Figures Out That Obama Keeps His Promises -- Chris Weigant Stunned."
-- Chris Weigant