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Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 19, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and Fidel Castro's decision to resign as Cuba's president (Robinson is the author of "Last Dance in Havana: The Final Days of Fidel and the Start of the New Cuban Revolution").

Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everybody. Sorry to be a little late getting started today. Wisconsin, Hawaii, Fidel Castro -- lots to talk about. I'll try to use only my own words and not borrow from Deval Patrick...

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Blacksburg, Va.: Will Castro's resignation open U.S.-Cuba relations in the next five years, or will there continue to be political opposition, so as to appease the Cuban defectors in Miami?

washingtonpost.com: Fidel Castro Stepping Down as Cuba's President (Post, Feb. 19)

Eugene Robinson: I see no change in relations in the short term, nor do I anticipate a lot of straight-talk rhetoric from the presidential candidates (any of them) on how stupid the embargo and travel ban are -- at least not as long as a firm line on Cuba is seen as necessary in order to win Florida. Longer-term, there might be a limited opening in the next several years. Real change is unlikely as long as Fidel is alive, I think.

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Houston: I've observed that in those primaries/caucuses where independents were allowed to participate, they seemed to be voting for Obama on the liberal side and for McCain on the conservative side. There are a quite a few states that don't allow independents to vote in primaries/caucuses where no independent is on the ballot, but allow them to vote in the general election.

In your opinion, how decisive will the independent vote be for this election? I've watched the campaigns of the past seven presidents and never have seen independents voting in the numbers they are this time around. Are there statistics for this? Thank you for your consideration.

Eugene Robinson: Independents always are decisive, at least in recent elections. Both parties need to attract independents to win. The Republicans need more of them than the Democrats, but neither party can win without them.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Perhaps I have missed it, but I have yet to hear Sen. McCain expand on just what he would do to address issues -- with the economy, health care, terror, Iraq, the world's perception of the U.S., immigration and other subjects -- that is actually different from the Bush administration's actions. I find this especially troubling considering that he has joined Sen. Clinton in a near-constant stream of denunciations of Sen. Obama about his alleged lack of substance. (And, of course, I am obviously less than objective.)

Eugene Robinson: John McCain has been crystal-clear on the issues he obviously cares most about -- the war in Iraq and the war on terror. In my opinion he has offered very few new ideas on domestic issues. I don't think that will work this year.

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Northville, N.Y.: Mr. Robinson, lets say that McCain pulls off the near impossible, and manages to win in November. What does a McCain GOP stand for? More Bush? Even if he wanted to stay in the Middle East for 100 years, McCain totally would destroy our military without some sort of pullback. As far as the economy is concerned, major reforms are needed to avoid catastrophe.

And what is the McCain GOP, anyway? It's a conglomeration of conflicted interests, a forced marriage of people who hate each other. Has anyone gone back to see what the crash and disintegration of a political party, say the Whigs, actually looks like? It looks like the GOP in 2008. What Bush and Cheney have done to their party might be their only gift to America. I think the media is so in love with the Obama-Clinton thing that they're missing the biggest political story of the past 50 years.

washingtonpost.com: McCain's Losing Message (Post, Feb. 19)

Eugene Robinson: I think it's clear that the Republican Party is having to redefine itself. I don't think it's out of the question that the party will be able to settle into its new identity in time to elect John McCain this fall -- but I think it will be really, really hard.

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Washington: You already said real change was unlikely as long as Fidel lives, so what would it take to experience actual changes in Cuba?

Eugene Robinson: The obvious thing would be for the Cuban government to give Cubans a real voice in their government through multiparty elections, and to lift the repressive restrictions that govern Cubans' lives. Allowing freedom of the press would be a start. I don't see Fidel countenancing any of this, and I don't think his brother Raul or anyone else would try to take such steps (even if they wanted) as long as Fidel lives.

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Chicago: Hi Eugene. I read recently that there's a younger generation in the Miami-Cuban community that are now leaning towards normalizing relations with Cuba. Is this true, and does the community as a whole need to signal their "approval" before any U.S.-Cuba normalization can occur?

Eugene Robinson: It's true that younger Cuban-Americans and recent arrivals from the island are much less hard-line about the embargo and the travel ban, according to surveys. But there's not yet a new consensus, so I certainly wouldn't expect any change in U.S. policy in an election year.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why has The Post decided to declare war on McCain? Hasn't it ever heard of journalistic integrity or ensuring lack of bias? Will there be equivalent attacks on Obama or Clinton? I somehow doubt it.

Eugene Robinson: I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about, and I know that neither the Clinton nor the Obama camp believes it's getting a free ride. If you're referring to anything I might have written, please keep in mind that I write an opinion column. Opinion. Meaning, here's what I think. An opinion columnist who had no opinions about the candidates wouldn't be very interesting to read.

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Baltimore: Re McCain's campaign promises: Whether Clinton or Obama is the nominee, either campaign will latch onto that clip of McCain saying that the U.S. will have to be in Iraq for 100 years, and make it the linchpin of an ad blitz. How can McCain think he can win by essentially promising endless war in the Middle East? As a liberal Democrat, I would love to see him offer the veep role to Mike Huckabee so they could run on a platform of endless war on an Earth only 9,000 years old.

Eugene Robinson: Given what I do for a living, I'd love to see that too. I might even steal your line, although I'll be sure to give you credit.

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New York: As someone who had a rare opportunity as an American to study in Cuba, I've been convinced that Cuba has been a society in the midst of great transitions for the past decade. Few there have the delusion that Fidel stepping down would have an immediate shift in day-to-day reality, but do you feel that Castro's resignation could serve as the catalyst needed for the U.S. government to recognize Cuba in its present state and finally transition U.S. policies towards Cuba? Or will the U.S. government continue to hold on to a 48-year grudge?

Eugene Robinson: I too think Cuba has undergone major changes that most outside observers don't understand, but I have to say that I felt more of a sense of possibility about Cuba's future when I made my first trip in 2000 than when I made my last in 2004. The place seemed grayer, sadder and more repressive the more times I visited.

Since my last trip, though, I know that Hugo Chavez's oil wealth has made a real difference in the Cuban economy, and I hear that life is somewhat easier. It's sad, though, that so many great musicians I met while doing my book in Cuba have felt since that they had to depart for the United States.

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Kingston, Ontario: Mr Robinson, I feel you're whistling to keep up the troops' courage. The GOP's chances by no means are so desperate. McCain's campaign surely will revolve around the following familiar claims: One, that the Democrats are untrustworthy on national defense and security, and will forfeit a possible victory in Iraq. Two, that the Democrats will raise taxes. Three, in a reprise of the "Harry and Louise" strategy of the '90s, they'll say that the Democrats will place the people's fate in the hands of government bureaucrats. Yes, these themes are well-worn, but they have worked superbly in the past. Where do you find the confidence that they won't work again?

Eugene Robinson: They might, but it's clear from every survey I've seen that Americans want an end to the Iraq war, and believe there is a crisis in health care. I'm not sure that playing the fear card and the big gub'ment card will work this time.

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Arlington, Va.: Baltimore asks "how can McCain think he can win by essentially promising endless war in the Middle East?" Answer -- by making the connection to your continued enjoyment of your consumerist, suburban lifestyle and the need to secure ever greater proportions of the world's energy supply. That's how.

Eugene Robinson: It certainly would be interesting if someone ran on a platform of: "War in the Middle East: We need to grab the oil, stupid!"

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Odenton, Md.: McCain never said we would be making war in Iraq for 100 years. Yes, he was too loose in making his historical point about occupying troops, but I'm troubled you would pass along a comment from a poster who is flat wrong without noting it.

Eugene Robinson: I wouldn't call that flat wrong. He was saying that the occupation of Iraq might last for many years. And he did mention the number 100.

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Arlington, Va.: I hate to even ask this, but what effect do you think a major terrorist event in the U.S. would have on this race? If patterns stay the same, it seems that it would favor McCain (i.e. the candidate with the most aggressive, militaristic approach to dealing with the world).

Eugene Robinson: I tend to agree (heaven forbid).

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Atlanta: On Cuba, I agree the embargo and travel ban have outlived their usefulness. But putting those aside, do you know what if any position the U.S. has taken on the rights of Cubans who had property taken by the Castro government? You don't want to beggar people who are already poor, but surely something is owed to people who lost so much.

Eugene Robinson: This question is more complicated for me than it seems on the surface. Decades ago, Cuba settled such claims lodged by European and other governments on behalf of Cuban exiles. The United States chose not to negotiate at the time. The threat that exiles from Miami will arrive and try to take back their old houses, farms and factories is one of the things that genuinely binds ordinary Cubans to the Castro government.

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Amherst, Mass.: How do you see the governments of Chavez, Lula and Morales responding to Fidel's demise? Will it reinvigorate their leftist platforms, or will they respond to the narrative of inevitable defeat of the left that the U.S. will spin, celebrating Fidel's death as if it were a second fall of communism?

Eugene Robinson: Remember that Fidel isn't dead yet. Lula has defined his own 21st-century Latin leftism and is comfortable being an ally of the United States. Morales doesn't have much push or pull internationally. Chavez is the interesting one: He'd like to be the new Fidel -- the thorn in America's side -- but at the moment he has to shore up his popularity at home, which has taken a real hit.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Robinson, the animosity levels between Clinton and Obama are rising so fast -- I am fearful the rift won't be repaired, and McCain will waltz into office in November. What can be done to prevent that?

Eugene Robinson: I don't see anybody waltzing anywhere this fall. But yes, whoever gets the Democratic nomination will have some real fence-mending to do if the party is to present a united front in the fall -- against a Republican Party that already is trying to get its act together.

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Washington: Mr. Robinson, I frequently read your opinion column. I must say that you have been incorrect thus far in your discussion of Sen. McCain. I think there is a strong case to be made that "experience" will likely trump "change" in this year's election. Once the press objectively evaluates the substance of Obama's policy positions, it is likely they will unearth some serious flaws. At least the press and the American people know where McCain stands and the substance of his campaign. Your thoughts?

Eugene Robinson: Keep in mind that Obama hasn't been nominated yet. If he is, that will be the election -- change vs. experience. It also will be youth vs. age, pro-choice vs. pro-life, out of Iraq vs. stay in Iraq. ... Right now, people are on Obama's side of those issues.

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Atlanta: I've always felt that because U.S. citizens aren't allowed, Cuba has the mystique of the forbidden (Cuban cigars for example). In other corners of the world you've visited, does Cuba have the same mystique? Is it just another bad place with a dictator?

Eugene Robinson: Cuba has similar mystique elsewhere, but perhaps less than it does here. As for Cuban cigars, they're just objectively better.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Mr. Robinson, do you believe Castro is dead and the party leadership is afraid of the aftermath?

Eugene Robinson: No, I think he's still alive but incapacitated.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Do you see any scenario under which Clinton or Obama would gracefully concede following the Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries if one was up by 100 or more pledged delegates? Or do you think this will be a fight to the convention and the superdelegates no matter what?

Eugene Robinson: It's possible. Because Obama has a significant delegate lead at this point, if Clinton were to run the table it would still be hard for her to catch up. I don't see anyone with a lead in delegates conceding. If Obama were to run the table -- and it would have to be a series of blowouts -- the superdelegates might rush over to his side, Clinton would be in a position where she couldn't hope to catch up, in which case I suppose there could be a concession. But we're a long way from either of these scenarios.

That's all the time we have today, folks. Thanks for participating, and see you again next week.

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