On Cuba, we’re stuck in a time warp

July 8

The weirdest story of the day is without question this one about New Jersey senator Robert Menendez, with its suggestion of links between Cuban intelligence and a Daily Caller story on prostitution allegations involving the Senator.

But the really extraordinary thing here involves U.S policy — everyone involved is acting as though it’s still 1982 and the Cold War is raging. You’d think that if we could just apply a little more pressure to Fidel Castro, his government would fall and freedom and democracy would sweep into the island nation. After all, the embargo has only been in place for 54 years — surely it’s going to work soon.

In case you’re unaware of the Menendez story, it began just a few days before the 2012 election, when the Daily Caller, a conservative web site, ran a story alleging that Menendez had paid for sex with underage prostitutes while vacationing in the Dominican Republic. They even had video of the women (with their faces blurred) describing the man they referred to as “Bob.” The women later recanted, saying they had been paid to repeat a story that had been presented to them. Nevertheless, as the Post’s Erik Wemple documented last February, the mainstream outlets that at first thought the story too flimsy to run in the first place reported on its existence once the Daily Caller published it and it was “out there,” as the highly technical journalistic parlance has it.

All of which would have been crazy enough, but now it takes another turn:

According to a former U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of government intelligence, the CIA had obtained credible evidence, including Internet protocol addresses, linking Cuban agents to the prostitution claims and to efforts to plant the story in U.S. and Latin American media.

The alleged Cuba connection was laid out in an intelligence report provided last year to U.S. government officials and sent by secure cable to the FBI’s counterintelligence division, according to the former official and a second person with close ties to Menendez who had been briefed on the matter.

The intelligence information indicated that operatives from Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence helped create a fake tipster using the name “Pete Williams,” according to the former official. The tipster told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.

Intelligence work these days isn’t nearly as cloak-and-dagger as it once was. The days of poison-tipped umbrellas and microfilm hidden in shoe soles may not be not completely behind us, but those kinds of things have largely been put aside in favor of the vast amounts of information that can be gained from electronic surveillance. Yet something about Cuba seems to catch everyone in a time warp.

Perhaps that’s understandable when it comes to the Cubans themselves. Cut off in many ways from the world, they still drive around in 50s-era cars and live lives that haven’t kept up with the changes of the last half-century. So it may not be all that surprising that Cuban intelligence officials could cook up a scheme like this and think they could get away with it — or that they would accomplish much by doing so.

But you know who else is still living in the Cold War? Bob Menendez, for starters. A Cuban-American, Menendez may be the most hard-line opponent in Congress of any change in US policy toward Cuba. There was a time when all politicians, Democrat and Republican, would perform a ritual of going to south Florida, telling Cuban-Americans they’d get tough with Castro, and then leaving it at that, since there wasn’t that much tougher to get. But few even bother doing that anymore. Barack Obama ran in 2008 on easing restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, and it didn’t stop him from winning Florida twice. And while there are plenty of Republicans who still support the embargo, none of its advocates can explain why a policy that has failed for 54 years is suddenly going to succeed now.

And who else is still mired in the Cold War? The United States government. While early in his first term Obama fulfilled his campaign pledge on travel and remittances, the embargo remains in place. Cuba still makes US government officials do inane things, like USAID creating a fake version of Twitter in the country in order to foment unrest, which is only slightly less ridiculous than the CIA trying to kill Castro with an exploding cigar back in the 60s.

Isn’t it about time we all admitted what everyone knows? Perhaps it was less than crazy to believe that the embargo would bring Castro down in 1964, or 1974, or 1984. But it’s 2014, and it hasn’t worked yet. Acknowledging that doesn’t make you “soft” on the commies. It makes you sane. While Hillary Clinton supported the embargo in 2008, she has now moved beyond the Obama administration, saying it should go. No one can believe that’s a politically perilous position to take. Maybe the rest of Washington can figure out what most of the country has known for a long time.

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Greg Sargent | July 8