Photo Credit: Frans Persoon
This article by my recent dinner partner Marc Frank, entitled, "Cubans Fear Hard Times Ahead" uncovers where the real conversation is focused in Cuba: getting the Cuban government to fix the bloated bureaucracy and let ordinary Cubans get to work on improving their own lives. Farms need seeds, equipment, and fertilizer. Consumers need more cash and less handouts. Homeowners need the ability to sell their property--at least like they do it in London and China--with long-term leases.
Here's an indicative quote from a Cuban farmer:
Farmers have never wanted the state to give them anything. What we want is that they sell us what we need to work and produce," Evelio, a farmer in central Cuba, said in a telephone interview.
And supporting reform is where the United States needs to aim its policy. Away from the counter-revolutionary fantasies of the right-wing in Miami and towards a real policy that engages Cuba where it is at, recognizing the wisdom of Amartya Sen, that "development is freedom".
More important, at least for us foreign policy realists, is that a policy structured around a shared agenda of sustainable economic development in Cuba would preempt a full economic collapse in, which, given the strength of the state, the absence of a credible political alternative and the poverty of its people, would result not in a counter-revolution but in a new boatlift headed to South Beach and Coral Gables. That's precisely what happened in 1980 and in 1994 and, if push comes to shove, it will happen again.
Shifting from isolation to development also fits with the best traditions of American foreign policy, like the Marshall Plan. America is at its best and most successful when we engage in shared economic prosperity not coercive regime change. That's true whether we are talking about Cuba ... or Iraq.
Photo credit: The White House
Yesterday, three significant statements were made regarding the United States' policy towards Cuba. President Barack Obama, responding to dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, signaled to Congress and Havana his willingness to break the stalemate on Cuba policy. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) came out forcefully in favor of ending the 50 year old travel ban keeping Americans from traveling to Cuba. And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi protected President Obama's health care flank by saying Cuba will not interfere with the President's legislative agenda.
It was a great day.
President Obama's words were perhaps the most important development and are a substantial development in an evolving policy. In May 2008, speaking before the Cuban American National Foundation, President Obama articulated a three point policy on Cuba: he will allow Cuban Americans to travel more freely to Cuba; he will allow Cuban Americans to send unlimited remittances to the island, and he will not end the embargo. In April 2009, President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise and then offered to initiate talks while presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested that before normalization, Cuba will have to release its political prisoners. In August, senior career State Department officials initiated talks with Cuba over migration and mail service. Yesterday, the president broke new ground, and stepped more clearly from the policy of conditionality:
We have already initiated a dialogue on areas of mutual concern Ã¢â‚¬â€œ safe, legal and orderly migration, and reestablishing direct mail service. These are small steps, but an important part of a process to move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new and more positive, direction. Achieving a more normal relationship, however, will require action by the Cuban government.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Will require action by the Cuban government,Ã¢â‚¬Â is the key phrase. For those who want to see an end to a dysfunctional and counter-productive embargo it is the first time in decades that preconditions were not explicitly stated as a requirement for normalization. Of course a more normal relationship will require action by the Cuban government: they will have to allow our diplomats freedom to travel, they will have to work hard to address American concerns around counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, human smuggling, they will have to improve their airline and banking security and transparency. They will have to finally put to bed any outstanding property claims. From where I sit, these are all issues the Cuban government is prepared to negotiate and make changes around. In other words, the President just cleared the diplomatic path to more in-depth negotiations.
Not only is this statement a signal to Havana that Obama is serious about moving forward with talks, packaged brilliantly in a tweak of the Castro government by responding to Yoani SanchezÃ¢â‚¬â€it is also a signal to Congress. Sanchez submitted these questions to the president months ago. The White House chose to release them the day of Chairman Berman's landmark hearing on Cuba travel. For those members of the House and Senate looking for a signal that this administration supports the legislation to end the ban on travel, this is as good as it will get before the Senate passes health care reform.
Which brings us to Mr. Berman's well-timed hearing. Summing up his position, the powerful foreign affairs committee chairman said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Let's face it. By any objective measure, the nearly 50-year-old travel ban simply hasn't worked.Ã¢â‚¬Â It was a pivotal statement at an important hearing. To hold this hearing, Chairman Berman had to break dramatically from the Ranking Member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and get out ahead of many of his democratic colleagues on the committee. It was a bold move and will set in motion an avalanche of politicking on the Committee in advance of the mark-up of the Delahunt-Flake bill that would make the Chairman's position the law of the land. But make no mistake. The fact that the Chairman and the President made these statements on the same day denotes exactly where these two leaders are. That Berman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar co-authored an op-ed earlier in the week is also an indicator of where Senator Kerry, SFRC Chairman will soon come out. This policy is wired for change.
The only question that remains is timing. On that score, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was given the job of managing expectations, lest these important signals confuse presidential intent for urgency. President Obama's larger agenda depends on his passing robust health care reform and he will not willingly spend any more political capital on any other issue until the Senate puts a bill on his desk. Speaker Pelosi, by saying that she too supports ending the travel ban but that it must take its place behind health care and jobs, is preserving the president's capital stock.
But make no mistake. The political leadership of the United States of America just sent Congress and Havana some very clear signals about their intentions on Cuba policy.
Two old hands at foreign and security policy, Senator Dick Lugar and Congressman Howard Berman, have just published a piece - Ã¢â‚¬Å“Lift the Ban Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Let Americans Visit CubaÃ¢â‚¬Â - that provides a much-needed breath of fresh air to a U.S. policy so stale that it stinks.
In addition to the policy failure, the two gentlemen point out this salient reality:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¦travel restrictionsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦impede the right of Americans to freedom of speech, association and to travelÃ¢â‚¬Â¦nothing about the Cuba situation today justifies such an infringement on our basic liberties.
We might add that to allow a situation in which an ethnic minority in the U.S. - Cuban-Americans - can travel to Cuba while most Americans cannot, is an even more egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution.
On these merits alone, the Ã¢â‚¬Å“full travel to CubaÃ¢â‚¬Â legislation, now working its way through both houses of Congress, should pass overwhelmingly - despite the rearguard actions of those in the Congress and elsewhere whose true motivations have been exposed in none other than The Miami Herald.
Exposed a few days ago, on the pages of that paper, were the huge sums of money being paid into the political enterprises of these Congressmen and women by those whose self-interest is in keeping the U.S. isolated from the rest of the world with regard to Cuba.
Most significantly, our isolation in our own hemisphere is becoming downright dangerous. There isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a leader in the region, from BrazilÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Luiz IgnÃƒÂ¡cio Lula da Silva to CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Stephen Harper, who hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t said to President Obama that enough is enough: lift the embargo on Cuba.
While full travel for all Americans is not lifting the embargo nor normalized relations - as the U.S. has with Vietnam, for example - it is an incremental step in the right direction, as Senator Lugar and Congressman Berman intimate.
Every journey requires a first step. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s high time America took this one.
-- Lawrence Wilkerson
Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw "Radek" Sikorski, husband of Washington Post editorial writer (and Polish cuisine expert) Anne Applebaum, is a compelling, brilliant, eclectic political intellectual who I admire a great deal.
In part, I admire Sikorski because while tenacious and committed to his own analysis and views, he maintains an open mind; he listens; and while tenacious, he debates his intellectual opponents without going into the gutter. And he is occasionally unpredictable in all the right ways.
One way that he surprised me when he was running the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute -- then the institutional beating heart of America's neoconservative movement -- he wrote a piece for National Review that called for an end to the US embargo of Cuba. It was called "Travels in Fidel-Land."
An expert in the illiberalism and despotism of the former Soviet empire, Sikorski had long argued that people to people contact, exchange, free commerce and the like open up a society and make it much more difficult for a dictatorship to remain in power.
Sikorski gets it. The intent of his article then was to focus on altering the internal dynamics of the Cuban state, but to do so not by overt meddling but from the power of the American marketplace and from the constructive collision of American liberal ideas with the hopes and aspirations of Cuban citizens.
From my progressive realist perch, I think that the US has tied itself into self-defeating knots with five decades of a failed embargo and a regime change obsession with Cuba that has gone nowhere.
I don't think that the embargo has produced results that have served the US national interest and have decreased American leverage in Cuba and Latin America. I think that removing restrictions on the freedom of Americans to travel and dropping the emrbargo eventually will have profound consequences on the political realities in Cuba and the United States. Both ways.
I don't share the objective that many neoconservatives, even Radek Sikorski, have of fundamentally altering the internal arrangements of other countries -- but I recognize that with an end to the embargo against Cuba -- what Cubans call "the blockade" -- that possibility exists and may even be probable. But that's not the wave of change that is the American government's right or role to surf -- it is the Cuban people's.
Here is a key clip from Sikorski's "Travels in Fidel Land":
The standoff between the U.S. and Cuba seems ultimately not just political, but also psychological. Cubans seem to think that they get noticed by big brother only when they stick him in the eye. Americans seem determined to put the little one in his place. How else do you explain the silliness of barring your citizens from visiting a country you are not actually at war with, or of imposing fines for importing Cuban cigars? We didn't cease to enjoy caviar even at the height of the Gulag.
The law should not be an ass, and the U.S. can afford to be pragmatic in its policy toward a country that no longer poses a threat. As Mark Falcoff points out in his brilliant Cuba: The Morning After, to keep the embargo while granting Cubans privileges in immigrating to the U.S. is politically self-contradictory: It gives the regime an excuse for failure while simultaneously helping it get rid of its internal opposition. . .
But if neither Old Europe's appeasement nor the U.S. embargo is likely to succeed in changing the regime, perhaps we need a coordinated transatlantic approach that would build on methods that have worked in the past. Human contact across the Iron Curtain was crucial in maintaining the conviction on the other side that democracy and free markets are superior to Communism: Fulbright scholarships that were granted to dissidents and nomenklatura alike helped to create alternative elites and weaned Communists off their zeal.
Sikorski has kept his own government of Poland on this track he articulated five years ago by instructing his Ministry's Ambassador to vote along with 184 other nations against the US Embargo of Cuba in the United Nations a week and a half ago.
-- Steve Clemons
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.
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t read The Washington Post any longer because, on a good day, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a third-rate newspaper. But sometimes I do read Post articles to which friends refer me.
One such article was an op-ed from some time ago - April 6, 2009 - by Marc A. Thiessen entitled "The Embargo After the Castros". This article typifies the opposition to improving relations with Cuba. It reads like the plaintive cry of a man who, because he can't conjure up any defense against the wave of history that is about to topple him, seeks to have a deus ex machina pluck him from the wave's path at the final moment.
But such gods as Jesse Helms, Thiessen's boss in the long-ago, are dead and though their ghosts may prowl the earth, dei ex machina they arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. Besides, Helms and his gang did more damage in their time to U.S. foreign policy than anyone since Senators Joseph McCarthy and William Jenner and their infamous red scare during the early days of the Cold War. But democracy is self-correcting and, largely, the amelioration has set inÃ¢â‚¬â€particularly with the election to the presidency of Barack Obama.
But back to Cuba.
In his op-ed, Mr. Thiessen cites a meeting he and Roger Noriega had with Ricardo AlarcÃƒÂ³n in 1998. Mr. Thiessen revels in what apparently was his and Mr. Noriega's personal epiphany that Mr. AlarcÃƒÂ³n was no different from any of the leaders in the U.S. Congress. That is to say, he was possessed of personal ambition and he let that ambition at times cloud his perspective of the Cuban peoples' genuine interests.
With respect to Mr. ThiessenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s specific epiphany, AlarcÃƒÂ³n allegedly provided brilliant insights about the questionable staying power of one RaÃƒÂºl Castro, now at least the titular head of the Cuban leadership. From this seminal meeting, Thiessen concludes: "RaÃƒÂºl Castro's position as Fidel's successor is by no means assured." BFO for Marc and Roger.
Blinding flash of the obvious (BFO) because no almost 80 year-old man's position is assured for long. In fact, it is one of the few verities about the Cuban leadership: RaÃƒÂºl and Fidel will pass from the scene - and sooner, not later. Death happens.
If RaÃƒÂºl (or perhaps Fidel even) dies before the U.S. has begun to change its policies toward Cuba - principally to demonstrate that it is the Cuban people who should handle the transition and not the U.S. or any other outside force - we will have missed a golden opportunity to impact the transition that will then occur. Moreover, and more seriously, we will have missed the chance to affect major and positive change in our relations with the rest of our hemisphere, from Buenos Aires to Ottawa.
But Mr. Thiessen's true stroke of Helms-like genius comes when he attacks those who want to see the embargo on Cuba lifted and relations between the U.S. and the island normalized. Mr. Thiessen writes: "Set aside questions about the embargo's efficacy. Like it or not, it is our only leverage, aside from our military, to affect the transition in Cuba." In one fell swoop, Mr. Thiessen reveals the emptiness of his thinking.
Set aside questions about the embargo's efficacy? Hamlet may as well set aside questions about his father's murder. The embargo is an utter failure at great cost to the people of Cuba and to the people of America.
This is what the present movement to change policy is all about. From this clearly demonstrated fact does the effort to restore sanity to U.S. Cuba policy draw its strength. One cannot set aside questions about the embargo's efficacy because the embargo is U.S. policy. The embargo is an abject failure; ergo, U.S. policy is an abject failure. Normally, this is incentive to change. Ã¢â‚¬Å“NormallyÃ¢â‚¬Â apparently doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hold water for Mr. Thiessen.
Couched in Mr. Thiessen's illogic is another absurdity as well: "aside from our military", he writes. Can we imagine any person so foolish as to contemplate the "no options are off the table" version of diplomacy vis a vis Cuba? Using the Armed Forces of the United States against a country whose chief foreign policy today is sending doctors and medical technicians to the world's ghettos?
And there are dozens of ways to affect Cuba's transition; in fact, one could argue that there are millions of ways. Because every American citizen traveling to Cuba is a way to affect Cuba's transition. There is no better emissary for democracy than a free citizen.
Moreover, simply recognizing that it will be up to the Cuban people ultimately to decide what type of government they desire following the departure of the Castros from the scene, will generate a new momentum for change. Imagine, if you will, a hemisphere where the U.S. is respected and admired again rather than disparaged and reviled, where leaders such as Brazil's Lula and Argentina's Kirchner can look forward to working with Washington on real challenges such as trade, climate change, illicit drugs, growing crime and human trafficking, environmental protection, finding and developing new energy sources, managing diminishing water resources, HIV/AIDS, and the many other problems we all increasingly confront.
As President Obama said this year in Turkey: "This much is certain: no one nation can confront [such] challenges alone, and all nations have a stake in overcoming them. That is why we must listen to one another, and seek common ground. That is why we must build on our mutual interests, and rise above our differences. We are stronger when we act together. That is the message that I have carried with me throughout this trip to Europe. That will be the approach of the United States of America going forward."
Jesse Helms, eat your heart out. Your demonic dreams for American global hegemony are being defeated by what you most loathed - the growing understanding that if we don't hang together in this world we are most surely going to hang alone.
-- Lawrence Wilkerson
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been visiting on the Hill recently. Senators and representatives. Staffers and aides. Both parties. Several different perspectives. But one thing is abundantly clear among them all. Cuba is hardly visible.
With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability in Pakistan, tumult in the streets and holocaust deniers in Tehran, nuclear weapons in North Korea, and Russians nearly everywhere, there is little space left.
Add a vitriolic - and barely helpful - debate over healthcare, a much-needed but much-opposed major change to the U.S. program for ballistic missile defense, a simmering economic crisis that no one actually understands that threatens to take U.S. deficits to staggering new levels and that ten thousand of WashingtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most powerful lobbyists are aiding and abetting, and the little space that remains is utterly consumed. And I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even mentioned our energy challenge and planetary warming, thank you Senator Kerry.
Yet into the face of this tumult march a few intrepid folks who want sanity to return to U.S.-Cuba policy after years of failure. You have to admire, I think, our fortitude if not our sense of the possible.
Yet even in the face of this powerful de-prioritization, there is progress.
All over America, op-eds and articles question the embargo and point out how many jobs and how much trade and commerce are being lost. From Salt Lake City, to Tampa, to Denver, local governments are awakening to these losses. Cities like Galveston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama dispatch teams to Havana. They look at trade, disaster practices (the Cubans are particularly adept at preparing for and dealing with hurricanes), cultural exchanges, and more. To the devil with Washington, they say. LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s get on with business.
Thousands of Americans every year defy the travel restrictions and travel to Cuba, usually through CancÃƒÂºn or Toronto.
Hotel chains salivate at the prospects for construction of hotel and other infrastructure to support a lucrative tourist trade.
Farmers, now hard-pressed to pay off huge debts and to keep farming, wonder why such a close-at-hand market as the eleven-million Cubans in Cuba, is off limits.
Physicians interested in best practices for delivering healthcare to impoverished areas such as in AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Appalachian region and elsewhere in hard-hit rural areas, wonder why they cannot conduct exchanges with the best healthcare deliverers in the world - the Cuban medical professionals who specialize in this field from the barrios of Venezuela to the slums of sub-Saharan Africa.
The U.S. military yearns for the time when it can more fully cooperate with what it knows to be the most professional armed forces in the Caribbean - on counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions in particular.
Recently, even, a representative from one of our smaller oil companies, CONOCO, told me that there may not be enough oil off Cuban shores to excite ExxonMobil or Chevron, but her company was ready by golly.
This week too, members of the Environmental Defense Fund met with some of their counterparts from Cuba. Depleted numbers of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, lack of stringent policies for tuna fishing, and a number of other critical environmental issues were on the agenda.
U.S. Cuba policy cries out for change - in almost every category conceivable, from arts to medicine, from oil to agriculture, from law enforcement to military-to-military relations, from commerce to capital flows, from airlines to tourism.
U.S.-Latin America policy, resting on a single, self-serving approach - the Andean drug initiative - cries out for change almost as loudly. And Cuba is the door of opportunity to begin that change.
So, it may be that Cuba is at the very bottom of the U.S. agenda from WashingtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s point of view. But as with so many things in AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s history, it may be too that Washington has to be awakened by the 300 million people who pay its wages.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve a feeling deep down that such an awakening is coming. Today, even the Cuban-American community, in poll after poll, is for change.
The small percentage of Cuban-Americans who are still in favor of current U.S. Cuba policy are about to be shouted down by their own children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters and, yes, perhaps even some in their own midst to whom the epiphany has come.
An official travel policy, for example, that discriminates by ethnic background is unAmerican and unconstitutional anyway. Were I Cuban-American, I would have to feel some shame about having condoned such a policy, let alone constantly paid off my members of Congress to enforce it.
Yes, the ground swell for this lowest priority issue is building. Full travel will come. Full trade will follow. The embargo will be gone. It will be Americans of all types who make it happen.
From time to time, after all, it is encouraging to see democracy really work.
-- Lawrence Wilkerson
Governor Bill Richardson is visiting Cuba on a trade mission for his state this week. In an AP story filed yesterday, Richardson announced that he would report on his trip to President Barack Obama, but that he was not on a mission and carried no message from Washington.
When Richardson reports, Obama should recruit. President Obama should offer this former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, former Secretary of Energy, and former member of Congress a role as the point person for the Obama administration's Cuba policy. It is a perfect opportunity at a perfect time.
First, he's got the chops. "Rogue-state" Richardson built his diplomatic reputation on negotiating with authoritarian regimes to secure U.S. interests. He successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Kim Jong-Il, and Omar al-Bashir. All of those countries exported nuclear weapons, invaded their neighbors and/or committed crimes against humanity. By contrast, the Castro government, now exporting doctors and nurses, nickel, tobacco, rum and tanned tourists, is tame.
He's also got 'street cred' in DC. Mr. Richardson was the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Deputy Majority Whip. He is also a border-state governor, an agricultural state governor, and the only Hispanic state governor. All of these credentials are essential to being able to make the case within the administration, within Congress, and with the American people that the time to evolve our relations with Cuba is now.
The Governor is no liberal idealist, but has deep realist roots. He began his career in Washington working as a Congressional liaison for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Nixon Administration. After leaving office as Secretary of Energy and before becoming Governor, he joined his old boss at Kissinger McLarty Associates. He sat on the boards of Valero Energy and Diamond Offshore Drilling, giving him a keen understanding of the energy dynamics at play in today's U.S.-Cuba relationship. With that experience, he'll keep a keen eye on the broader U.S. interests at play in Cuba policy rather than those of a small minority of irreconcilable Cuban-Americans.
The Richardson choice would finesse significant bureaucratic deadlock. By picking Richardson and giving him autonomy over his team, President Obama would avoid the web of entanglements built into the State Department bureaucracy. Though career officials, the Cuba desk at State is watched like a hawk by Congressional Cuba Hawks opposed to any efforts to change the 50-year old policy. President Obama does not even have an assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs yet, as his nomination has yet to be voted on by the Senate. It is even doubtful that Secretary of State Clinton, who needs to remain close to Senator Menendez to keep her department's funding intact, has any real interest in putting Cuba on her geopolitical to-do list. It's high time that a president took a page out of Nixon's playbook and did an end run around Foggy Bottom to finally get the Cuba relationship where it should be.
As Envoy, Richardson would be immediately backed by a broad array of domestic support. In Congress, without much effort or fanfare, 160 members in the House and 31 members in the Senate are already cosponsoring legislation to end the travel ban. Former Southern Command CINCs like General Barry McCaffrey and a broad array of groups including the Catholic Church, the American Farm Bureau, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, have come out in favor of changing the policy. Even a majority of Cuban Americans polled in Florida are also ready for a change. And for good reason: the policy failed, contact with everyday Americans and normal trade relations is more effective, and at least the ag sector really stands to benefit, with an estimated $1.2 billion in annual farm sales to Cuba coming from normalization. The world would back him too: last year it voted 185-3 to condemn the U.S. embargo.
The governor could even work part time. Obama's envoy to the Six Party Talks with North Korea, Ambassador Bosworth, has kept his day job as dean of the Fletcher School (Richardson's and this author's alma mater). It might not even take that long. Raul Castro has indicated his willingness to talk, migration talks have already been productive and the Cuban government is signalling to everyone that political prisoners, Obama's key precondition, are doable.
And the timing could not be better. President Obama's honeymoon has been ended by the health care debate and climate change legislation is looking equally difficult. While his reversal of the worst excesses of the Bush administration were a relief, he has yet to deliver the kind of change that the rest of the world expected from candidate Obama. In Latin America, where immigration, energy, and trade issues have great impact on the lives of every day Americans, the neighbors are unanimous: end the embargo and then we'll turn the page. Obama needs a win and Cuba can give it to him.
Richardson's visit along with his clean bill of legal health, is a gift. The White House should accept it and make Bill Richardson him the presidential envoy to Cuba.
Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama meet at the Vatican (White House Photo)
In a well-publicized visit to the island of Cuba, a delegation from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this week called on Havana and Washington to "listen to our better angels" and work to end the embargo that has caused decades of unnecessary suffering on the people of both nations.
That's good advice. One can presume that this was the same message spoken directly to President Obama by Pope Benedict XVI in their discussions of Cuba, conversations revealed by Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough to the Miami Herald last month.
Such a conversation would be consistent. Though relations between the originally-atheist Castro government and the Vatican were rocky, the Vatican never withdrew its diplomatic recognition of or representation in Cuba. But the end of the Cold War presented Havana with an opportunity to improve relations, leading to a visit by Fidel Castro to the Apostollic Palace in 1996 and the Pope's visit to Cuba in 1998.
In his farewell address in Cuba, Pope John Paul II said the following:
May nations, and especially those which share the same Christian heritage and the same language, work effectively to extend the benefits of unity and harmony, to join efforts and overcome obstacles so that the Cuban people, as the active agents of their own history, may maintain international relations which promote the common good. In this way they will be helped to overcome the suffering caused by material and moral poverty, the roots of which may be found, among other things, in unjust inequalities, in limitations to fundamental freedoms, in depersonalization and the discouragement of individuals, and in oppressive economic measures Ã¢â‚¬â€œ unjust and ethically unacceptable Ã¢â‚¬â€œ imposed from outside the country.
Hurricane map from the National Hurricane Center.
The 2009 Atlantic hurricane season may have started slow enough to get a downgrade in the forecast from the National Hurricane Center, but yesterday we had three named storms churning their way. So much for the slow start.
I don't know if it is because I've seen first hand what hurricanes can do to the United States or my experience helping people recover from the devastation of war, but I have a lot of respect for the destructive power of cyclonic winds and the rain and flooding that come with them.
That's why I spent the time digging into the outlook for Cuba this year. My article in The Washington Monthly looks at the potential for a disaster scenario should the right storm sweep Cuba in the next couple of months when it has not yet recovered from last year's four direct hits. You can read the article here.
So, as an irregular feature for the rest of the hurricane season, I've decided to provide a brief weather report right here on the Havana Note. If you happen to live in the affected area, however, please do not rely on my regurgitation of the professionals. This is more about providing political early warning for a crisis I do not want to happen but over which we have no control.
That said, here is the brief:
Tropical Depression Ana: This storm is currently forecast to move east-west just north of Cuba and will bring with it heavy rains.
Hurricane Bill: This is a major system that will shortly turn into a major hurricane. It is not currently tracking toward Cuba, but may hit the East Coast of the U.S. by next weekend.
Tropical Storm Charlotte: No threat to Cuba, made landfall in Florida late Sunday night.