The Last Relic Of The Cold War

[ Posted Tuesday, April 14th, 2009 – 16:54 UTC ]

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, Raúl 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. Bush’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


6 Comments on “The Last Relic Of The Cold War”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Once again, as per usual, you are the voice of reason and wisdom on what can be a pretty passionate issue.

    I must admit that, in a particularly snitty mood, I posted something that put me in the same category as this New York Times article - I criticized Obama/Biden for doing precisely what Obama said he would do. Did I expect Cuba policy to make a 180 degree turn on a dime, overnight!? I can be such an idiot! And, wouldn't you know it...the damned post got a token of praise from the site and I'm thinking, if I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all.

    Do you remember the speech Biden gave just before the election (the one the media mischaracterized as the 'Obama will be tested' speech) when he implored Obama's biggest donors and supporters to stand with Obama/Biden on the various foreign policy challenges they will face even when the administration's decisions may not, at first glance, appear to be the right decisions etc. etc. etc. ... well, it seems I need reminding about that, too.

    Anyway, this was an excellent post and a much needed reminder, for me, that the last two people on earth that I should be second guessing on issues like this are Obama/Biden.

  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Maybe instead of a title, it should be a tag. Then you can count up the number of articles tagged as such.

    The Cuban sanctions regime is a perfect example of how bad policies can become untouchable. After almost fifty years of failure, the Cuba Libre lobby is still convinced that more sanctions will do the trick. All this policy has managed to do is make Cubans depend on Castro even more. It's the most self-defeating policy in our hemisphere, including the War on Drugs.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Elizabeth -

    When I thought about writing this article, I wasn't even going to mention the media. But then I read that NYT article this morning, and it just pushed my buttons. I have to give credit to Dan Froomkin's blog at the Washington Post, as he was the one who actually pointed out (with link, thanks Dan!) the speech Obama gave in Miami. I went and read the whole speech, and was impressed at how reasonable and well-thought out it was.

    There's a feeling among liberals (I am susceptible to it to, I admit) that for the first time in a very, very long time that we have not just won an election, but in circumstances that will actually allow us to get a lot of things done. This leads to anxiousness and impatience because we'd all like our pet policies to be implemented overnight. Like I said, I've been swept up in these feelings myself at times over the last few months.

    But some things need some patience, and some trust that Obama means it when he talks about how hard it is to turn the ship of state (his "it's not a speedboat" metaphor) -- that some times it takes a while to accomplish.

    Some things need patience for different reasons. Some things are politically foolish to try right away, before you've got some solid victories under your belt. So far, Obama's been doing a pretty good job, although he does worry me on the state secrets front at times.

    But I think he's smart to be an incrementalist on Cuba, for now. There are many small changes which could happen over time which will each make headlines when they happen -- as with the loosening of travel restrictions today. I think he's holding out on lifting the embargo because he wants to use it as a bargaining chip with whomever replaces Raul Castro (who is no spring chicken himself). One thing I didn't mention, this is all timed very nicely to take place just before a meeting of the OAS, and could actually lead to some region-wide diplomatic changes. Also, I can't but help think that Obama is using this as a test case with the Miami Cubans (astonishingly enough, CANF actually is supporting Obama on the issue).

    You've got to understand, too, that Americans think Cuba is isolated from the entire world. They have no idea that Europeans vacation there (and probably a Canadian or two) just as they do on any other Caribbean island. The embargo is solely an American product, which as I said, we just don't realize here because we don't see it from the outside looking in.

    I personally am offended that my government denies me the right to travel to a country that is not dangerous or war-torn, but because of the ideas I might get from it. That has always offended me, and I want to see the embargo end as much as the next guy. But the vitriol this issue raises (in Florida especially) among some means that on this one, I'm actually OK with Obama going a little slowly, because I think he actually has a good shot at changing it completely within the next few years. He's heading in the right direction, in other words, so I am willing to wait to see how the path develops.

    Osborne Ink -

    Including the War on Drugs? Wow, that's really saying something! Actually, that's an interesting comment because of what is coming tomorrow, when I give what I believe is my first movie review (before it even opens!). I would encourage you not to miss it.


  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    On the state secrets issue...I've learned my lesson and you won't see me criticizing how Obama/Biden handle this one until I am armed with ALL the facts and they are clearly not doing their jobs!

    Let's just say that I don't aniticipate their performance on this issue as requiring anything but a lot of praise!

  5. [5] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, great claims require great evidence. I'm a political geography nut, and my claim is based on geopolitics.

    Apparently, Barack Obama was paying attention during the same classes, because a new peace initiative with Cuba happened more quickly than a new offensive on drugs, terror, or any other thing that's not a country.

    Peace with Cuba opens up the entire Caribbean market. It means Chavez can have his new start. South American leftists won't have this canard to throw around anymore, but they'll be empowered by Obama's example.

    Bush's geopolitical mistakes threatened our relationship to an entire continent. Obama's showing them he's serious about a new American approach -- and they WILL respond. They need us. Regional problems like drugs and conflict can't be solved until that happens.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    I have to admit, as per usual with Obama, the Cuban diplomatic situation is moving much faster than I expected it to. I said to my wife tonight: "In his spare time, while he was looking for lost change in the couch cushions, President Obama solved the Cuban crisis, and ended the Cold War once and for all."

    The speed of these things happening is beginning to make me dizzy, I have to admit. This is the most stunning example of a politician actually doing things that I think I have ever seen in my entire lifetime. I may not agree with all of them, but you have to admit the pace is just breathless...


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