Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Gets Real on Cuba

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What’s the best way to gauge if anyone in Washington understands what’s going on in Havana?  Try to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

More than once, I’ve complained about the Obama administration’s tone-deafness on the shifting political, social and economic climate in Cuba.  We (and by we, I mean they) were slow-to-absent in acknowledging and encouraging the 2010-2011 political prisoner releases brokered between Raul Castro, Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the previous (Zapatero) government in Spain, and President Obama himself has highlighted the ongoing economic changes in Cuba only to call them insufficient

So it was fascinating to watch this exchange at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week in which Cuban-American Congressman David Rivera pressed Secretary Clinton for any “tangible” progress towards democracy in Cuba thanks to the Obama administration’s policy toward the island:

“Well in the last three years there have been considerable changes in Cuba’s economic policy which we see as a very positive development, we think having the Cuban people given more economic rights, to be able to open businesses, to have more opportunity to pursue their own economic futures, goes hand in hand with the promotion of democracy.  I wouldn’t claim that our movements were a direct cause but they were coincident with.  Very often in oppressive regimes like Cuba, economic freedom precedes political freedom.”

Here Rivera interjected to say he’d dispute the economic freedoms point, but insisted that surely Cuba has made no “political reforms,” – which prompted this reply from Secretary Clinton:

“Well despite our very strong objection to the treatment of Alan Gross, the, in our view, totally unjustified charge and detention, a great number of political prisoners have been released. . . Again, that, in and of itself is not final evidence of anything.  But the fact that so many political prisoners were released in the last three years is, in our view, a positive move.”

This is the first time in three years that I can recall any senior Obama administration official has publicly shown any awareness of what is really going on in Cuba today.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the administration is prepared to take steps based on that reality, but it is a useful signal to Havana all the same.  It shows that Clinton herself possesses sufficient knowledge, perspective and courage when it comes to the thorny issue of Cuba.   I wonder if anyone took note in Havana?

Some say Cuba’s leaders have no interest in warming relations with the United States, but the same could be said of U.S. leaders (except perhaps Secretary Clinton).  Each side needs to perpetuate the hostility for domestic political consumption.  With every passing year, it becomes a little less useful to both sides, but never fast enough to take advantage of an advantageous moment in history.   

History is littered with missed opportunities between these last two Cold Warriors.  Given that Hillary Clinton has said she would not remain as Secretary of State in a second Obama term, the next twelve months (and right after the U.S. elections in November, in particularly) could be a crucial moment in history for leaders in the U.S. and Cuba to make good on their pronounced willingness to, as President Castro has said, put everything on the table, and, as President Obama has said, foster a new beginning between the U.S. and Cuba.