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Hagel’s Cuba problem

Much of the focus on Chuck Hagel’s record has been on his views on Israel, Iran and sequestration. Equally troubling to those who have taken a forceful stand against Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba, however, has been his dismissive attitude toward the Castros  and his enthusiasm to end the U.S. embargo with no quid pro quo.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has already expressed serious concerns about Hagel’s views on Cuba. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), former chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and  now chairman of the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, put out a statement objecting to Hagel and citing his views on Iran, Israel and Cuba:

During his time in Congress, Senator Hagel supported legislation that would have provided a lifeline to the decrepit Castro regime that for the last half a century has exploited the Cuban people and posed a severe security threat to the U.S. . . . In a time of regional turmoil and rogue regimes, our Secretary of Defense must remain strong on sanctions against Iran, never abandon our allies, like Israel, and stand up to dictators like the Castro brothers who seek to oppress the voices of democracy and freedom

At times Hagel has seemed entirely clueless about Fidel Castro’s role in the region. Frank Calzon, who head the Center for a Free Cuba, told me in a telephone interview on Friday afternoon, “I respect him like any other senator. But apparently he is not very well informed. To the extent he has been aware, he has underestimated the Cuba situation.”

In 2002 the Omaha World Herald reported: “Otto Reich, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, last week laid out a case against overtures to Cuba and its longtime president, Fidel Castro. ‘Castro has supported terrorist groups in every country in this hemisphere except Mexico,’ Reich told reporters Thursday. ‘So he is a terrorist.’ Sen. Chuck Hagel, a main sponsor of Senate legislation to lift economic sanctions on Cuba, countered Reich on Friday, saying that to term Castro a threat is ‘just goofy.’ ‘This is a toothless old dinosaur,’ the Nebraska Republican added.”

Hagel has worked assiduously in favor of lifting the trade embargo, calling the policy “outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy.” And he was instrumental in blocking legislation to grant Elian Gonzales citizenship.

The Castro regime, of course, has grown increasingly close to the Iranian regime and has allied itself with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In seizing and imprisoning an American, Alan Gross, it has advocated a swap with the so-called Cuban five spies (a position strenuously opposed by the U.S. Senate).

Calzon pointed out, “Jimmy Carter like Hagel felt it was for lack of trying that relations were so dismal.” But of course, this ignores outreach efforts under the Ford, Carter, Clinton and Bush administrations. Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action. Although President Carter set up a large interests section in Cuba, Castro responded by unleashing the Mariel boatlift. Cuban troops were also dispatched to Angola in one of the Cold War’s most prominent standoffs. President Obama relaxed travel and remittance restrictions, only to see Alan Gross be tried and imprisoned.

Calzon told me, “I don’t have a crystal ball. But in general I expect [Hagel] would continue to subscribe to the views he has held for years.” He contends that Hagel “will not present different views” to President Obama, who has already been inclined to follow the Carter approach to Cuba. Calzon is quite certain, having studied Cuba for decades, how the Castro regime will respond. “The Cubans will celebrate having Hagel in the Pentagon, ” he told me. ” Not only will they see that as a sign of weakness but as an invitation to push the envelope. Instead of reducing the chance of conflict, the opposite is true.”

Hagel’s views on Cuba put Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of the most ardent opponents of lifting the trade embargo, in a tough spot. Last June at a hearing he grilled the administration’s assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, saying, “The Cuban people are no less deserving of America’s support than the millions who were imprisoned and forgotten in Soviet gulags. I am compelled to ask again today — as I have before — why is there such an obvious double standard when it comes to Cuba?” He has repeatedly vowed to block measures to lift the travel and trade bans. (In 2010, he declared: “Repression is repression and dictatorships are dictatorships, no matter where they are located or whether you want to use their resorts.”) Now he will be faced with a nominee who not only has worked strenuously for those positions, but seems to be willfully dismissive of the nature of the Castro regime.

Menendez, who also has been a robust supporter of sanctions on Iran, would have to sublimate his views on Israel, Iran and especially Cuba and cede his role as a Democratic Senate leader for a tough-minded national security policy if he rolls over for the president’s nominee. Aside from boosting a lame-duck president, why would he want to do that? We’ll find out soon.