Obama Makes First Move in Long Dance Ahead on US-Cuba Policy


Big announcement made today via White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs and National Security Council Latin America Director Dan Restrepo on the new parameters of America’s “Cuba Policy.”
So. . .let’s get the easy part of this comment out of the way.
Applause, applause, applause. . .for a decent set of humanitarian gestures in the US-Cuba relationship that don’t actually make things worse. Obama and his team have moved us in the right direction — and moving in the right direction on Cuba is something that rarely happens when Presidents and their advisers look at electoral maps and get nervous about South Florida. So, bravo for a bit of good news.
The Obama administration today lifted restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans and eased restrictions on US telecommunications firms entering into network agreements with Cuban telecom firms in a broad range of communications services as well as easing restrictions on humanitarian donations to Cubans.
Only problem with today’s announcement — beyond the very friendly nudge about Dan Restrepo’s impressive Castilian accent that may not play too well to many in the Cuban-American community — is that it is not “a lot of good news.”
I have always disliked over-tilting to any class of “other nationality-Americans” when it came to dealing with political and economic policies dealing with their home, or preceding, countries of origin. Ethnic politics are a reality in this country — but all people in this nation regardless of origin have as much right to argue about the terms of US foreign policy writ large. And I feel that no voices should be privileged over others.
Our President and our Congress should be crafting foreign policies with other sovereign states that fit the preferences and interests of most Americans, not a sub-class of them.
But today, remarkably, our nation’s first African-American President has just issued executive orders that create preferences and opportunities for a specific class of ethnic Americans. Even if a good step on one level, at a macro level, this sort of cynical gaming of domestic politics at the expense of broader national interests is fundamentally wrong.
President Obama inherited the perverse economic and political realities created by fifty years of a dysfunctional US-Cuba relationship and failed embargo and has to deal within the confines of the Helms-Burton Act and other legislation that is not his fault.
But what was interesting in today’s announcement was the fact that his envoys for making today’s announcement — Gibbs and Dan Restrepo — gave no indication that the President felt uneasy issuing executive orders removing all restrictions for Cuban-Americans but not addressing the travel rights of all other classes of American citizens.
I want to give credit to Dan Restrepo saying that today’s policy was a starting point — before Gibbs cut him off.
So, applause for the Cuban-American oriented efforts. Better than nothing — but not nearly enough. And the precedent is worrisome and disconcerting.
We did not open up relations with Vietnam by restricting travel to Vietnamese-Americans. We really should not be doing this with Cuba either.
What is happening is that Barack Obama has started the ball moving forward — and is opening up something he knows many will find completely unacceptable and discriminatory.
Separate is not equal — and that is what Barack Obama’s team has just moved forward.
On the much more positive side, President Obama is easing restrictions on telecommunications providers to allow roaming service agreements for cell phone calls and other transmissions. This matches some of the liberalization on cell phone and other video and dvd equipment liberalization that Raul Castro has already enacted.
Obama has also eased up restrictions on humanitarian gifts and packages to Cuba — which was really needed after the recent devastating hurricanes this past year. Humanitarian relief has been something we should have eased long ago — and this was a good step.
Now, my hunch is that Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod see that they have “done enough” to check off the boxes for what they have promised the right wing, moderates, and even left wing of the Cuban-American community that felt collectively strangled by the tightness of the Bush administration restrictions.
What Obama foreign policy strategists Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert are probably thinking — and I have reason to suspect that McDonough in particular has had leverage and significant involvement in the just released policy — is that they have now started something that Congress and others are going to have to vigorously fight to move forward.
The Obama administration never intended to carry all of the water on completely changing the US-Cuba relationship into something that makes 21st century sense — but they are telegraphing — or Denis McDonough is in my view — that the White House is perhaps willing to work with Congress to move this into territory that Obama has not yet committed to and did not express support for during the campaign.
McDonough, if I am reading this correctly, is smart in unveiling America’s Cuba strategy this way. He has probably given his assent to Rahm Emanuel’s south Florida pandering as a first step in a broader struggle — and hopefully a somewhat slippery slide — into a more rational national security position with Latin America.
Obama has made his “first move” in what is essentially a negotiation with both Congress and the Cuban government and Latin American region.
No political players offer everything they have in their first move, but for a start, what we heard today is really not all that bad.
But as Restrepo tried to intimate in today’s press conference, it is probably a mistake to think that this policy is now fixed in concrete and is our new permanent status quo.
For those interested in reactions at a conference we are organizing tomorrow titled “Is It Time to End the Cold War In Latin America?“, join former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson, Council on Foreign Relations Latin America diva Julia Sweig, New America Foundation president and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senior Latin America Advisor to Senator Lugar Carl Meacham, New America Foundation Whitehouse Senior Fellow Michael Lind, Foreign Policy magazine blogger and Garten Rothkof CEO David Rothkopf, US News & World Report Diplomatic Correspondent Tom Omestad, and National Foreign Trade Council President William Reinsch.
The conference will STREAM LIVE here at The Washington Note.
And we have a major announcement on a letter that has gone to Barack Obama from a whole bunch of military brass on US-Cuba relations. More on that tomorrow.
— Steve Clemons


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