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Eugene Robinson: Cuba Policy, Economy, More

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, April 13 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everybody. I just finished listening to President Obama's speech on the economy, which sounded like a professor's summary of what the class covered that term. Hope the exam is graded on the curve. There's lots of othernews to talk about, of course -- pirates, puppies, politics... Today's column is about U.S. policy toward Cuba, which has been dumb and ineffective for nearly 50 years. The president's actions Monday make it a little less dumb, but not by much. What's everybody thinking about?

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Shafter, CA: I loved your line in today's column that American policy should be based on reality because we've exhausted all other options.

Why do you think it is that we haven't had the political will to change policy toward Cuba?

washingtonpost.com: Addled by Fidel

Eugene Robinson: I honestly don't know. Yes, there's the political calculation in Florida, but I don't think that fully explains the insanity of sticking with a policy that has produced no results, zero, in five decades. We took a different approach with the rest of the Communist world -- engagement, both economic and political -- and it worked. Duh.

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Richmond, Va.: I can't keep up with what the Cuban/Cuban-American community wants (though I do know they have a heavy hand in Florida politics/American politics). So, would they or wouldn't they applaud Obama's easing of restrictions on Cuba? In other words, would Obama have gone much further (the way you suggested) but for the Cuban/Cuban-American community?

Eugene Robinson: A generational shift is under way in the Cuban-American community in South Florida, as aging exiles give way to their children and grandchildren -- and to later waves of Cuban immigrants who are not as uncompromising as the Old Guard. The Cuban-American National Foundation, historically the most powerful and implacable anti-Castro group, now supports the kind of changes that Obama made yesterday. Keep in mind, though, that a lot of what Obama did was just undoing the harder-line restrictions on travel and remittances that George W. Bush had imposed. Obama didn't take the big steps that I think need to be taken, which are ending the embargo and eliminating all travel restrictions.

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New York: Why should naturalized citizens born in Cuba have more rights to travel the world (i.e., travel to Cuba) than a natural-born citizen or one born somewhere else?

Eugene Robinson: There's no good reason.

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So....: Does this mean it is still illegal to bring Cuban cigars into the U.S.? Is this really change I can believe in?

Eugene Robinson: No Cohibas. No Montecristos. Sigh.

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Havana, Cuba: Thank you so much for that op-ed this morning. I've lived in Havana for 3 years now (husband is a diplomat) and I've come to the same conclusions about Fidel's use of the issue of race and the problems of race that exist here today. So, I don't have much to add, except to say that in my experience you are absolutely right.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks so much. To begin to understand the issue of race in Cuba, I think you really have to spend some time there and get to know some people who come to trust you and can speak candidly. On my first visit, I didn't get it. By the fourth or fifth, I began to see more clearly.

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New York, NY: I spent two weeks in Havana on an educational license in 2000 (during the presidential election re-count, actually). Our group stayed in a tourist-class hotel on the Malecon. One of my most striking memories of Cuba is how the hotel management refused to allow one of our number, an attractive young African-American woman, to hang out in the lobby with the rest of us. Every time, they chased her out. Apparently, we learned, they considered all attractive young black women to be prostitutes, and treated them accordingly.

Eugene Robinson: I've heard from other American women who had similar unpleasant experiences. There are contexts in which race seems truly irrelevant in Cuba, and other contexts in which people tend to make ugly assumptions.

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Washington, D.C.: Eugene,

As a Cuban refugee I find it refreshing to read articles in the Post from someone who at lease has some idea and experience about what it is like to live in Cuba. However, reading other people's opinions and articles I get a little offended with the ethnocentric views that are shared by some in the US.

The belief that American tourists will somehow bring about amazing change to the island because of their great democratic views and capitalist pockets is disturbing. We Cubans are not dumb and have experienced tourists from all over the world. I do not think lifting the travel ban will magically cure the Cubans and lead to the end of the Castro regime. If anything it will strengthen his hold on the island through the fattening of his pockets.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. I think your criticism is fair, but I don't agree. If the Cuban government allowed any and all Americans to visit the island, the number of tourists arriving every year would surely double, if not triple. The state-run economy is too inefficient to absorb all that money, so I would expect a lot of it to reach ordinary Cubans. There would be a big impact, I think -- but this whole scenario almost certainly wouldn't happen. I believe the Cubans would limit U.S. tourism. But then, at least, the onus would be on them, rather than us.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Gene and thanks for the great column entitled "Addled by Fidel." Here are my two questions: 1) Have you ever yourself (I mean personally) experienced any form of racism during one of your many trips to Cuba? If yes, what was it? If not, why not?

2) Is anti-black racism in Cuba at a level that should concern an African-American leader? I have never been in Cuba, but it seems to me that most neighborhoods there are racially integrated, and that all governmental institutions are fully committed to racial equality. If these are true, why bring up this issue? There will always be a residual form of racism no matter what.

The real problem facing racial harmony (real or supposed) in Cuba is the possible implementation of the U.S. model of capitalism. Then white Cubans will quickly realize that hooking up with black Cubans will be a liability for doing business with America (I mean white America). Consequently, what we are already seeing in a small scale in the tourist industry will become widespread in all sectors of the Cuban society once the U.S. model and values settle in.

Eugene Robinson: I've been stopped by police a couple of times for the crime of "walking while black." Both times, it happened near the end of a two-week stay, when my Spanish was at its best and my whole demeanor had probably settled into a more Cuban rhythm. As soon as I produced my passport, instead of the Cuban i.d. papers I'd been asked for, I was respectfully sent on my way. As to your other question, all I can tell you is that Afro-Cubans -- particularly dark-skinned Afro-Cubans -- talked to me, and each other, about racism a lot more than I would have expected.

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New York : There is another racial aspect to this which you didn't mention. The first wave of Cubans who came here, and who helped set this foolish embargo policy, were predominantly light skinned and privileged, very happy with the system run by mobsters, which they prospered under. A large number who have stayed in Cuba to this day are dark skinned and not as hostile to the regime, and slower to emigrate, and some believe that they are better treated on racial terms than in other places in the Carribean, and certainly better than was the case in the pre-Castro years. When this regime falls, it might very well be that racial tension will increase, as many of the formerly privileged will return and reclaim their positions as elites, to the detriment of those who stayed.

Eugene Robinson: You're right, to a point. It is absolutely true that the first wave of exiles was disproportionately made up of the privileged white elite. It is also true that many Afro-Cubans, as I wrote, feel that the revolution has given them opportunities they never would have had under the old, corrupt, racist system. And it's true that Afro-Cubans now make up a much larger share of the population than before the revolution. It's wrong, though, to generalize that black Cubans are more supportive of the regime, right now, than white Cubans. (I'm talking about people who are still on the island.) At the very least, any such tendency vanishes among young people who have known no other system.

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Philadelphia: Hi,Mr. Robinson...are you advocating something similar to the "constructive engagement" the U.S. discussed in the days of apartheid in South Africa? Also, I've read that Caribbean nations are not excited about Cuba joining the capitalist system-more competition for American tourist dollars...comments?

Eugene Robinson: No, just the kind of diplomatic and economic ties that we established with China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam -- and that have had a lot more positive influence than our embargo on Cuba.

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Santiago Chile: Mr. Robinson, This is the first tie I have ever asked a question in the type of forum. The only question I have (and the first one addressed by you) is, if our policy is so obviously a failure and unfruitful, why do we persist? Respectfully, how can you make judgments about Cuba and our policy and then say "I don't know why we maintain our policy?" That threw me for a loop, because I really want to know. President worried about next election and not alienating Florida voters? Cover you back with right wing conservatives. Maybe, especially if you don't know, right thing to do? I think you owe us, now or later in a follow up,a better explanation. I do enjoy your writing. Thanks.

Eugene Robinson: I said I don't know because none of the reasons make sense to me. Lifting the embargo and ending the travel ban would create an uproar in South Florida, but a lot of the rest of the country would react with a shrug. There's a clear majority in Congress for ending the travel restrictions, and there may be something close to a majority for ending the embargo. Yet we persist.

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Fairfax, Va.: Great article Eugene. I was born in Cuba and fled the island with my parents, as a child, in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift. After much soul searching, I abandoned my long standing refusal to visit the island while the Communist regime is still in power. Since the embargo has, in my opinion, proved ineffectual (so long as other countries continue their unabated trade and tourism with Cuba) I couldn't bear the thought of not seeing my family based on a principle that is sound in theory, but that in practice has proved detrimental to Cubans rather than to the Cuban government. It is time for the embargo to end.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. It's possible to wish the Cuban people well without wishing the Cuban government well. I hope you get to visit your family.

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Havana, Cuba: I'm interested in exploring this statement further: "The state-run economy is too inefficient to absorb all that money, so I would expect a lot of it to reach ordinary Cubans."

Have you been here in the last 8-9 months (since the hurricanes)? Raul is really clamping down on private initiative: first, all of the fruit and vegetable stands were closed by October (virtually eliminating the black market in produce, and greatly reducing the variety available here)and now it seems there has been an overhaul in policy towards the paladares (family-run restaurants). An excellent one, the Huron Azul, was closed in December because the owner was selling contemporary art on the side.

At any rate, should the travel ban end, how do you think the excess will be absorbed by private citizens? Do you think that the government will be forced to allow more casas particulares and paladares in the absence of enough hotels and restaurants?

Eugene Robinson: No, I haven't been there recently, and I had no idea about the Huron Azul -- I've eaten there. That's very interesting, if Raul is shutting the private food stands. A few years ago, when Fidel was still in charge, the government seemed also to be really cracking down on private enterprise. This seems to happen in spasms, and my theory is that they're just trying to control something that's not really controllable. If the paladares and the markets and the casas particulares start doing too well, the government gets nervous. If the Cubans ever did let in hordes of American tourists, it seems to me that the private sector would have to play a bigger role in feeding and housing those people. Which is one reason why the government almost surely would want to put some sort of limit on the number of Americans who could come.

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Chicago: Having lived in Miami during the year Elian Gonzalez was there, I agree completely with New York's post about the nature of the early Cuban emigres. The first generation of exiles came across as privileged, out of touch and utterly self-absorbed. As an Anglo observer, it was very easy for me to understand how these people could have provoked a revolution to overthrow them.

Eugene Robinson: Believe me, I'm not here to defend the hard-line Miami exiles or the Elian madness.

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Re: Pirate's Story...: How many people are aware of the background of the pirates story? Isn't it the media's duty to fill in the blanks?

While I do not endorse violence of any kind, I think it is important that we understand the motivations of the pirates.

Western corperations were dumping toxic waste on one coast of Somalia and on the other coast, fish poaching was going on. As a result, there is an unprecedented amount of disease and starvation in Somalia.

Jeremy Scahill had an excellent article about this: Putting Today's 'Pirate' Attack in Context

Thank you for listening.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for the background, but I'm skeptical that dumping and poaching are uppermost in the minds of the pirates and their patrons. I don't mean to approve the despoiling of Somali waters, but that's not the country's only problem.

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Fairfax County, Virginia: Hi Gene, I have to tell you, I don't have the same reaction to the "House Built Upon the Rock" speech that you do. I drank up every word. It's like being told about some abstruse, complicated medical condition -- boring and dry if it doesn't affect you, absolutely gripping if you or your family's health is at stake. I still have that life-or-death feeling about the economy and I appreciated solid stuff that didn't talk down to me.

You will make fun of me but I actually thought of the race speech in Philadelphia, which was also "scrubbed" so it had no sound bites. The similarity is that both were serious addresses on deadly serious topics of great interest to most Americans.

Eugene Robinson: I won't make fun of you. Believe it or not, I flashed on the race speech too, in that both addresses were attempts to describe complicated phenomena in understandable language -- without losing all the complexity. I can't claim that I was hanging on every single word, though.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: I have read several views about Spain's indictments of six Bush administration lawyers. How significant do you think this is?

Eugene Robinson: I believe it was the same Spanish judge who initiated charges against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who subsequently was detained while visiting Britain. So this isn't necessarily a trivial thing.

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Eugene Robinson: My time is up for today, folks. Thanks, as always, for dropping by, and I'll see you again next week.

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