This is a guest note by Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
President Obama, Gloria Estefan, and the US National Interest
In a few hours, President Obama will visit the home of Emilio and Gloria Estefan for a fundraising event that will cost attendees $30,400 per couple.
What could possibly motivate the Estefans and their closest friends and business contacts in South Florida to write such astoundingly large checks? Good government? Financial Reform? Ending the embargo of Cuba?
Let us not be naive.
The Estefans – at the vanguard of Cuban Americans who support the harshest possible line against the government of Cuba — will use this access “to get Obama’s ear on Cuba,” just as a columnist in the Miami Herald said on Saturday.
And I am sure that he will get an earful, about Cuba’s human rights record, and a whole lot more.
Of course, political conditions on the island should command his concern, as they do all of us. I don’t blame the Estefans for exercising their constitutional rights or using their power and wealth to gain this exclusive audience with the president.
But there’s a smart and vastly different point of view – one that President Obama will not hear in the Estefans’ living room – that says every American interest in democracy and human rights would be better vindicated by ending our current Cuba policy rather than by freezing it, or worse, by making it even tougher.
Just imagine what the President could learn if any of the following luminaries had gotten an invitation to this shindig and had thirty-grand to throw around.
If George Shultz were there, who served as Secretary of State under President Reagan, he could tell the president that continuing the embargo is “insane,” as he did on the Charlie Rose Show.
If Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to President George H.W. Bush bought a ticket, he’d tell Mr. Obama, “In foreign policy, the embargo makes no sense. It doesn’t do anything,” as he said on tape to Steve Clemons at the New America Foundation .
Legislators like Senator Richard Lugar could repeat for President Obama what he told Senate colleagues last year, “We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.”
John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could advise the President, “we have a choice: seek solace in old rhetoric, ignore change and resist it, or mold it and channel it into a new policy to help achieve our goals.”
If the Vatican were represented, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, could remind President Obama of what Pope John Paul II said when he visited Cuba; he called U.S. policy “oppressive, unjust and ethically unacceptable.”
Nelson Mandela, a fellow recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, could grab the President’s arm and prick his conscience by repeating his support of “the right of the Cuban people to determine their own destiny,” and by saying “that sanctions which seek to punish them for having decided to do so are anathema to the international order to which we aspire,” as he has said in the past.
Independent blogger Yoani Sanchez, a victim of harassment on Cuba for her opposition activities, could pull President Obama aside, thank him for doing an interview for her website, but then advise the President what Cubans of every political stripe on the island know and think: “I believe that these economic restrictions ? an ’embargo’ to some and a ‘blockade’ to others ? represent a blunder in American policy toward Cuba…it has been used to support the maxim, ‘in a country under siege, dissent is treason,’ which contributes to the lack of freedoms for the Cuban people.”
Instead, the President, who to my knowledge has never met at the White House with a broad cross-section of academics, advocates, and activists who share these views, will be told by the Estefans and their guests that he must not make further changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba this year given the human rights conditions on the island. How could they leave the party without asking for such a commitment?
If the President agrees, this will be a huge mistake. He will threaten changes that are moving forward in Congress to end the travel ban for all Americans and remove restrictions on the export of U.S. agricultural goods to the island. That would deny millions of Americans their basic freedom to travel, and kill the prospect of creating tens of thousands of American jobs in the travel and agricultural trade sectors.
But this is about more than dollars and cents; it is about common sense.
After fifty years of failure, we have to try something new.
Keeping the policy in place would put President Obama exactly in the same position as every president who preceded him since Eisenhower – trying to wring results out of a policy that has failed to change Cuba, and ignoring the advice of foreign policy experts, human rights champions, and freedom advocates in Cuba who believe that changing the policy is exactly the right thing to do, if you have the best interests of the Cuban people at heart and you want to advance American ideals.
Oh, for thirty thousand dollars.
— Sarah Stephens