Clinton, Obama, and Dodd’s Wrestling Match Over US-Cuba Relations


cuban face.jpg

US-Cuba relations are not high on the roster of priorities for many Americans, and yet small moves in the terms of that relationship could have enormous political consequences.

Recently, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did battle over what their policies would be towards Cuba if elected President.  That’s right — this was not a discussion of Israel/Palestine, or withdrawing from Iraq, or bombing Iran, or whether to talk to dictators without preconditions.  This was about Cuba.

Chris Dodd started things off with an eloquent statement about US-Cuba relations released through my blog, The Washington Note as well as my perch at The Huffington Post.  Dodd set the gold standard in my view in articulating a policy that wasn’t all warm and fuzzy about Castro but that spoke to America’s 21st century economic and national security interests with Cuba in contrast to those who want to keep US-Cuba relations cocooned in an anachronistic Cold War era framework that has little relevancy today. 

Dodd wants to end the many decades old embargo.  He wants to remove all travel restrictions — and he wants to see commerce and trade begin to flow.  He wants American people to meet Cubans and wants to trigger an arbitrage between the norms of our society and theirs.  That is the American way. That’s what we did with China.

Now Hillary Clinton — who has visited China and who supports relations with Vietnam and who has praised Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill and Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns on what seems so far to be fairly successful nuclear deal-making with North Korea — has spoken out against change in America’s stance towards Cuba and in favor of George W. Bush’s position.

Clinton doesn’t support changing course in US-Cuba relations despite decades of failed results and seems to have no problem with something that Jeff Flake (R-AZ-6), the charismatic Republican Congressman from Arizona, does.  Flake has said:

If my travel which I think is my human right is going to
be restricted, then it seems to me that a Communist government ought to
be the one doing the restricting — not my own government of the United
States of America.

Hillary Clinton has stated quite clearly that she is content to stick with past policies — those of President Bush — when it comes to Cuba. 

But Barack Obama has a completely different view.  While not quite
up to the robustness of Chris Dodd’s proposal, Obama wrote an oped for
the Miami Herald, "Our Main Goal:  Freedom in Cuba,"
calling for restrictions on family-related travel to end and increasing
financial amounts that families could remit to loved ones inside Cuba.
After he wrote the piece, Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia — who is also the former Executive Director of the Jorge Mas Canosa-run Cuban-American National Foundation, organized a large gathering of Miami citizens, an overwhelming number of whom were Cuban Americans, to meet with Obama.  Most report
that it was a super success.  There were some protests — but trivial
compared to what one might have expected in Miami on this subject
matter just a few years ago.

How could this be?  Hillary Clinton and those who want to keep
US-Cuba relations in a cocooned, freeze-dried state have not looked at
the recent polling data
that show clearly that the Cuban-American voters in Florida are
becoming divided over not only the family travel issue, but about the
efficacy of the embargo itself.

Again to quote Republican Congressman Jeff Flake:

Bush’s tightened restrictions on Cuban-American family travel is now
forcing people to choose whether they are going to attend their
father’s funeral or their mother’s.

Cuban-Americans from Miami have told me that the powerful triumvirate of Cuban-Americans from Miami — Ileana-Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart (the brothers are coincidentally the nephews by a failed marriage of their aunt
to Fidel Castro) — are facing their most serious electoral challenges
yet, as younger Cuban-Americans as well as older are shifting in their
policy preferences when it comes to the Cuba travel ban and embargo.

Recently, I went to Havana along with former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson.
Wilkerson is a blunt guy — a military guy — and doesn’t suffer
fools.  He was Colin Powell’s aide for sixteen years and served as his
aide when Powell was Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and also
when Powell served as Secretary of the State.

Wilkerson has published two sets of "reflections" on Cuba and US-Cuba relations at the newly hatched, The Havana Note.  In the first, he starts with the admission that while Powell’s chief of staff, he gave an "off the record" interview to GQ Magazine in which he said that our "US-Cuba policy was the stupidest policy on earth." 

Wilkerson writes:

When I was Chief of Staff to the
Secretary of State in 2004, I was exposed to some criticism within the
Bush administration when I was quoted in GQ Magazine as saying
that U.S. Cuba policy was the stupidest policy on earth. I deserved the
criticism because my immediate boss, Colin Powell, had approved that
policy. Not only that, he was co-chairman of the Committee set up to
monitor implementation of it. Now I realize that I deserve far stronger
criticism for not resigning my position in disgust over such policy.
Let me tell you one of the most powerful reasons I feel that way.

There is a film by Lisandro Perez-Rey called "Those I Left Behind".
The film documents the lives of several Cuban-American families against
the backdrop of the Bush administration’s tightened rules on travel to
Cuba. It is devastating in its condemnation of those rules. In the
film, you see and hear from people whose lives are in turmoil because
of these inane rules. You don’t need to understand how damaging the
rules are to helping democracy come to Cuba. You don’t need to
understand how dangerous the rules are with respect to U.S. national
security. You don’t need to appreciate that Cuba is the only country in
the world which U.S. citizens are prohibited to visit — a violation of
their constitutional rights. And you don’t need to comprehend how much
business America is losing because of the policies behind those
rules — policies that have failed abjectly now for some 46 years. All you
need to do is witness the devastation in the lives of these families to
know that the rules must be changed and as swiftly as possible.

Central to the film is the testimony of an American citizen — an
American soldier who has served in Iraq — who now finds it difficult if
not impossible to visit his sons in Cuba. Sergeant Carlos Lazo, now
somewhat famous for his advocacy for change, is shown talking to his
two sons, Carlos Manuel and Carlos Raphael, who are in Cuba, via one of
his many television appearances as he works for change. A resident of
Seattle and a member of the Washington National Guard, Sergeant Lazo
served as a combat medic in Iraq. Watching the scenes in the film of
his sons in Cuba and the Sergeant in the United States, is wrenching.
Particularly when Lazo talks of wanting to visit his sons prior to his
departure for a year in Iraq — a year where he easily could have been
wounded or killed — and then not being able to do so, you get the message
he is trying to convey with a directness that is heartbreaking.

On another front, well before any of us had heard of Michael Moore’s Sicko,
we became exposed to the new edge of Cuban power — soft power — in
Latin America and elsewhere:  the training and export of doctors.  Say
what you want about Castro, who has outlived an incredible number of US
presidents and may be around a bit longer, but exporting doctors is
wildly different than the export of guns and revolution, which was what
Cuba was doing for decades.

Here is an intro to Wilkerson’s reflections of Cuba’s national health care and medicine infrastructure and the global public diplomacy that they connect to it:

With Steve Clemons
and others, I recently visited Cuba (March 2007). One of the areas of
Cuban activity on which we focused was what has been described as one
of the world’s best systems for delivering healthcare to impoverished
people—in Cuba, in Venezuela and elsewhere in South and Central
America, and increasingly in sub-Saharan Africa. We visited Cuba’s
medical "contingency brigade", for example, and talked with doctors and
other healthcare personnel about the brigade’s recent, highly
successful tenure in Pakistan following the devastating earthquakes
there in 2006. The passion in the doctors’ eyes as they related their
experiences in delivering basic healthcare in isolated, freezing
regions of Pakistan was truly heartwarming. Some of the human interest
stories the doctors related brought laughter to us all and served to
demonstrate conclusively how deeply these medical personnel had been
touched by their almost year-long experience in Pakistan. They were
proud to announce that as a result of the good relations thus created,
Cuba was asked to open its first-ever embassy in Islamabad. Talk about
effective public diplomacy!

We also visited the Finlay Institute: Center for
Research-Development and Production of Human Vaccines — incidentally, one
of the places that the jacobin Undersecretary of State for
International Security Affairs, John Bolton, alleged in 2002 was
manufacturing biological weapons. We didn’t find any such activity (and
we did discover that at best the Institute has a rudimentary Bio-Level
III capability and no Bio-Level IV capability — the latter needed if one
is to engage in sophisticated biological agent research and
development). After the visit, we assumed that Bolton’s insights were
right up there with the CIA’s in 2002-2003 with respect to Saddam
Hussein’s mobile biological weapons labs. It’s safe to say we
considered the assessment by the former commander of the U.S. Southern
Command, Marine General Charles Wilhelm, as more definitive: "During my
three year tenure, from September 1997 until September 2000 at Southern
Command, I didn’t receive a single report or a single piece of evidence
that would have led me to the conclusion that Cuba was in fact
developing, producing or weaponizing biological or chemical agents."

Those interested in the realities of Cuba’s health care progress — and
the many lessons we can learn — can skip the Michael Moore film and
instead see Salud!

In foreign policy circles, most people consider me to be a
"realist".  I consider myself a hybrid of a number of schools.  I don’t
think that there are perfectly neat schools of thought any longer but
whether I’m a 21st century evolved realist, an ethical realist, a
progressive realist, or as Michael Lind would call me, a new American internationalist
— when I see US-Cuba realities as a manifestation of our failure to
move forward in ways consistent with global needs and American
interests, then my realist DNA perks up.

Cuba and the Cuban population remember the fall of the Soviet Union
and survived a devastating, tortuous shrinking of their economy (and
their personal body weight).  After the Russians, Venezuela cuddled up
to the Cubans and now they essentially barter doctors and medical
support for oil between each other.  China is the second biggest
economic partner of Cuba and has designs on developing the oil fields
in Cuban waters estimated to be about 9-12 billion barrels.  Americans
are not there — not involved.

Benetton has a store in old Havana.  British Petroleum — which
controls the Alaskan pipeline — had a party on the roof of my hotel in
Havana.  Israeli firms are managing large citrus groves there.  The
Germans, Chinese, Australians, Canadians, Dutch, and Japanese are all
visiting Havana and seeing the business opportunities.

But Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuiliani, Fred Thompson, and
John McCain all want to keep the Bush administration’s restrictions on
trade and travel in place.

Lifting the travel ban makes the United States a more whole nation
— as travel is a natural right of ours, not to be taken away by our
government.  This right should be restored to all Americans in my view.

But stepping away from the lofty for a moment, Hugo Chavez is not my favorite guy in Latin America. 

In my view, Chavez is a serious troublemaker made increasingly
wealthy from high oil prices.  He is an increasingly significant
constraint on America’s global options — and to knock him back a
respectable bit would be a good thing.  Opening the travel pipe would
steal from Chavez both the dependency and the affections of many Cubans
and might send a very popular pro-American current through Cuba and
much of Latin America.

More on this later — but Cuba does matter and is already a point of differentiation between Obama, Clinton, and Dodd.  Fidel will not be around long in my estimation, and we need our political and policy leaders to begin plotting a policy not riveted in the past and not dominated by a shrinking cartel in Miami. 

Steve Clemons


10 comments on “Clinton, Obama, and Dodd’s Wrestling Match Over US-Cuba Relations

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  2. rilkefan says:

    “Hillary Clinton has stated quite clearly that she is content to stick with past policies”
    Your “realclearpolitics” link is broken. And why don’t you quote Clinton’s actual words on the subject in the post? Maybe because you’d have to admit you’re apparently relying on a contextless sentence from her spokesperson? Which would make “Hillary Clinton […] has spoken out against change in America’s stance towards Cuba and in favor of George W. Bush’s position” look pretty stupid.
    Oh, and what about the 2005 vote?


  3. twodaloo says:

    I would think the one thing that all could agree on regarding the current policy on Cuba is that its existence offers a certain leverage to win concessions from the Cuban government for the Cuban people. If the elimination of the current barriers were tied to such concessions, it may be possible to more quickly advance needed reforms in Cuba, and it might also be an easier sell to those who have long supported the embargo.
    Like it or not, those who support the embargo are apt to see a unilateral end to the Cuba sanctions as something akin to unilateral disarmament in response to the Soviet threat.
    Get something meaningful from the Cuban government in return for what you propose to give, and you might find additional support.


  4. Carroll says:

    I guess I am just not smart enough to get Hillary’s campaign.
    Is she doing this to get all that special interest right leaning campaign money to get to the “Nomination”?
    I don’t see her Cuba or ME policy as appealing to “centrist”. Maybe I have a different definition of centrist then DC does.
    I would probably vote for Edwards as the “least of all evils” if he got the Dem “Nomination” but so far still no one to vote for.


  5. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve, perhaps you and Wilkerson could go on a similar visit to Iran, where you could debunk administration lies and distortions about Iran’s nuclear program in the same way you debunked claims about Cuban biomedical research.


  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Should we put this in perspective? If one accepts the Iraq populatiuon, pre invasion, at 25 million, as it was reputed to be….
    …and one considers the figure of approximately one million have been killed as a result of the invasion….
    …and one accepts the figure of four million that are displaced as refugees…
    …then the conclusion must be reached that we have killed or displaced 20% of Iraq’s population.
    No small feat, that.
    And I am supposed to give a shit what these three posturing frauds are blathering about Cuba?
    When I see Bush/Cheney sharing a gallows, after being convicted of high crimes and treason, as well as a myriad of war crimes, perhaps Cuban policy will once again become relevant.


  7. Stanky Tannenbaum says:

    Cuba, Clinton, Obama, and Dodd. One is relevant and three are not. Guess which one is relevant? No, you can’t use the “audience” polling. Foreign policy in America is dead. Gone the way of the red tennis shoe. Zip. Nada. Nonexistent and extinct. America now has the sole and regal dictates of our Commander in King. How would Clinton, Obama, or Dodd be any different than our current insane boy king? Yes, ‘we the people’ are simply screwed. Isn’t it about time for an uproarious revolution circa like the one had in 1776? Yes, that seems worlds of appropriate.


  8. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Read the commentary below this one, where Steve points out Bush admitting incredible ineptitude. Then you will understand why I think these three cowards, named in this thread, can go fuck themselves.


  9. Miriam says:

    Amen! Keep up the fight.
    I am confident it will change after the next election.
    BTW. Isn’t it ironic that International Labor Day is on May 1st to commemorate the Haymarket Riot in Chicago and most Americans know nothing about it?


  10. steve davis says:

    we americans need a president who will have a
    reasoned approach to both israel and cuba,
    and not a foreign policy dictated by AIPAC
    and the anti-castro cubans in miami.
    hopefully, since it appears hillary is the odds
    on favorite to be the democratic nominee, her
    current positions on these two issues are to
    minimize the nervousness of the center, her only
    hope to win in 2008.


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