President Obama's Unnecessary Global Rebuke


Well, the inevitable vote is now upon us. The world has condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba 187-3 with two abstentions. That's the 18th year in a row if I have my math correct.

This dramatic 180 in global opinion of President Obama's foreign policy did not have to happen. President Obama could have extended the open hand and spirit of engagement that won him the Nobel prize, but with Cuba he is playing from someone else's sheet of music. Despite the cosmetic and incremental changes to U.S. policy that mostly effect Cuban-Americans, Mr. Obama's biggest move so far has been to make the embargo his own, something he did decisively in early September, when he reauthorized the Trading With the Enemy Act provisions that provide part of the legal basis for the embargo. Indeed, that decision completely overshadows the stop-start low-level negotiations on mail service and migration that all his political appointees seem to be allergic to.

But Cuba policy is about more than Cuba in the eyes of our friends and competitors. Our indiscriminate and overbearing embargo is a symbol that for all the talk of change--from the end of the Cold War to the tragic events of 9/11 to the still reverberating echoes of "Yes, we can," the simple reality is that America is saying to the world that on an issue that symbolizes the last breath of American paternalism and the narrow politics of spiteful domestic interest groups the answer remains, "no, we won't."

Cuba should be an easy lift. Our neighbors in the Hemisphere are demanding an end to the embargo before we can reset the relationship and create the new partnership we need to deal with the great challenges of our neighborhood: immigration, narcotics, energy, economic inclusion and sustainability.

And the politics have decisively changed. The main reason the embargo remains undisturbed is because of the obsolete political assumption in Washington that the White House needs to placate Cuban-American hardliners in Florida to win the state's 10 percent of the Electoral College. But the numbers just do not bear this out.

President Obama won Florida in 2008 with 57 percent of Florida Hispanics and 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County--the first time a President won Florida without a majority of Cuban Americans there.

Mr. Obama picked up 10 percent more Cuban-American votes than Sen. Kerry in 2004, and did so promising the end of restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances. With these incremental promises now kept, President Obama's team will need to look at what issue can win more Cuban-Americans to his side for 2012. It seems certain that the Obama administration is not going to go backward regarding Cuba so their options are to either stand pat or try to increase their support.

And there, the most likely candidate is to deliver real results for those 67 percent of Cuban Americans in South Florida who support taking the next step toward normalizing relations with Cuba--ending the Congressional ban on travel to Cuba. Indeed, more than half of Cuban Americans in the state are ready to end the embargo altogether.

By 2012, however, even this might be a statistically moot point as far as the Electoral College is concerned. With the non-Cuban Hispanic population growing much more rapidly in Florida than Cuban-American and economic issues driving the choice for president, the sands of time may just simply erase this once deadly third rail in presidential politics.

Of course, money speaks louder than voters in Washington. A last-ditch effort to defend the embargo is being mounted by well-funded, hardline operatives who are lavishing money around the halls of Congress. Senator Bob Menendez, of course, has been using his leadership of the DSCC to ramp-up Cuban-American donations to the Democratic Party. Less well known is someone like Rep. Elliot Engel. The Westchester, NY democrat is the chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. With virtually no Cuban Americans in his district, the Cuba Democracy PAC has given him $5000 for the 2006 cycle, $7500 in 2008 and already he's received $5000 from the pro-embargo hardliners for the 2010 mid-terms. That kind of solid support can make any Member turn a blind eye to the longer-term damage the policy is doing to the United States.

Add it all up and our policy makes no sense. The US is ridiculed at the United Nations, our relationship with the rest of the Hemisphere is held hostage, and the domestic politics have moved on.

President Obama needs to build trust with the international community that he will actually deliver on the promise his election heralded. Cuba should have been a no-brainer. This vote is a reminder that despite all the hype, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are finding change a hard promise to keep.