I just heard that Matt Cooper commented on MSNBC Live that Secretary of Commerce-designate Bill Richardson is the guy to lead on Cuba. I think Cooper nailed it–the outgoing governor of New Mexico it is a natural fit with an elegant dash of poetic justice rarely found in Washington.
Richardson, many will remember, was famous for his one-on-one negotiations with nasty international characters, including Saddam Hussein and John Garang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and traveled to Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea to handle tough negotiations on behalf of American interests.
Even Republicans agree he’s got the skills. Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon, who heads up Western Hemisphere affairs for Secretary Rice at the State Department had this to say in a Reuters interview about Gov. Richardson’s role in freeing American hostages in Venezuela earlier this year: “Governor Richardson is a skilled negotiator with a lot of experience in this field and I am sure he has a lot to offer in terms of understanding possible resolutions of the hostage situation.” That will come in handy as many believe our entire Latin America policy is being held hostage by our failed Cuba policy.
But the poetic justice is really that Gov. Richardson will be replacing Carlos Gutierrez as Commerce Secretary. As the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Bush administration, he’s been the great defender of the embargo at home and around the world. He even lobbied European ministers, unsuccessfully, to stop the EU from ending their remaining sanctions against the island nation that now exports doctors, not revolution. Secretary Gutierrez also co-chairs the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a creation of the Bush administration that coincided with the administration’s tightening of the Cuban-American travel restrictions that, in turn, heralded the end of the unified Cuban-American voting bloc in South Florida.
In fact it is thanks to the over-reach of Secretary Gutierrez that Gov. Richardson will be able to go to Havana knowing that domestic politics – not to mention U.S. national interests – are on his side: Obama won Florida with only 35% of the Cuban American vote and a poll released just today says that anyway, 55% of Cuban Americans in South Florida want an end to the embargo completely.
Gov. Richardson will certainly benefit from the mission, should he in fact be offered it. In Congress, he led the House Hispanic Caucus and worked hard to bring the Latino community into the Obama camp. So look for an early negotiated trade with Cuba around the “Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot” policy that allows Cubans and only Cubans who elude the Coast guard or Border Patrol and set foot on American soil get fast-tracked to citizenship. No other ethnic group gets that treatment, and it’s a thorn in the side of the Latino community that both Richardson and Obama can reap a lot of capital from plucking.
Welcome back to Washington, Mr. Secretary.