Engaging Cuba, 50 Years Later

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 30, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Probably no event could stand as better proof of a U.S. foreign policy failure than the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, to be marked on Jan. 1. Nineteen days later, a new U.S. president -- the 11th since Fidel Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista's regime -- will inherit that policy.

Judging by the presidential candidates' statements last week, only Sen. Barack Obama suggests a change. Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain promote mostly more of the same: a continuation of the trade embargo and other restrictions, combined with support for dissident forces within the island.

In a speech in Miami last Friday, Obama pledged to immediately lift President Bush's 2004 restrictions on family travel and remittances, adding that "there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans." What's more, he became the first U.S. presidential candidate in decades to leave open the possibility of starting a dialogue with the Castro brothers "without preconditions." Although Obama said such talks would come only "at a time and place of my choosing," he seems willing to go well beyond Clinton or McCain in reaching out to Cuba's rulers.

This "softer" stance would have meant political suicide in South Florida not long ago, but things are changing. According to Florida International University's 2007 Cuba poll, a majority of Cuban-American voters still supports a military intervention to overthrow the Castro government. But at the same time, a majority also favors undoing Bush's restrictions (52.1 percent) and establishing a dialogue with representatives of the Cuban government (60.1 percent).

That may seem like a contradiction, but Hugh Gladwin, director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research, which conducted the poll, says that "a lot of people are so sick of the current situation that they want anything that would change it." If change is indeed the key word, then the Obama campaign has gotten the message.

Frustration within the Cuban-American community grew particularly strong during the nearly eight years of tough talk by the Bush administration, which many Cuban-Americans now feel was purely political pandering. Bush claims to have dramatically stepped up U.S. efforts to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba through a bottom-up approach that supports civil society groups on the island. And in strict terms, he put more money into his Cuban freedom agenda and even created a new bureaucracy to run it.

Unfortunately, very little was accomplished. The Cuban American National Foundation, one of the most influential anti-Castro groups, found in a March report that less than 17 percent of the funds earmarked for Cuba through the U.S. Agency for International Development were used for direct assistance. "The remaining 83 percent was used to cover operating expenses of grantee organizations, off-island transition studies and U.S.-based activities," the foundation said.

You could level a criticism against Obama's top-down approach for thinking that he could talk the Cuban regime into changing. McCain has in fact slammed Obama for proposing a dialogue, which he said would send "the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators." That retired President Fidel Castro signaled his support for Obama -- calling him, in a column published Monday, the "most progressive" of the candidates -- doesn't help matters either.

Republicans too criticize Obama for what they see as an inherent contradiction: pushing for engagement while easing, but not lifting, the embargo. But such criticism ignores a basic tenet of diplomacy. Sanctions can provide the leverage to negotiate with your enemies. And what's more, sanctions used as a tool for continued isolation have clearly had their chance -- and failed. As Anthony Lake, Obama's senior international affairs adviser, pointed out in an e-mail, "a refusal to talk seldom produces results."

The reality is that Obama's proposal is not that innovative (Latin Americans have been trying a similar approach for a long time, clearly with limited success) and criticisms of his proposal simply miss the point. The Obama campaign is acknowledging something that others have either missed or have evaluated differently, and this is that the Cuban exile community now encompasses more diverse views and, as a whole, is frustrated with the status quo.

While Cuban-Americans have solidly supported Republicans in the past -- presidents, governors and representatives in Congress -- Obama and the Democrats are better off offering a real alternative from the strict hard line of the past. The time is right for it.

If Obama ends up winning the presidency, January may in fact mark another momentous occasion: the irreversible erosion of a stubborn foreign policy approach based on the perceived single-mindedness of the Cuban-American constituency.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash(at)washpost.com.

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