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Policy Toward Cuba That Was Once Radical Is Now Logical -- My Interview With Rep. Barbara Lee

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What is it about the congressional seat that represents Oakland and Berkeley? Is there some radical potion that one consumes before occupying it?

Though radical tends to carry a definition of being an extremist, it is often a term given by the dominant culture because of the discomfort created by the proposed change.

Sometimes radical is simply running ahead of contemporary thinking, pushing the envelope until others catch up. Radical today can be the status quo tomorrow.

The decades that former Rep. Ron Dellums carried the South African sanctions bill looked radical to many before it finally passed in 1986. Today, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 is viewed as critical to speeding the process of ending the suffocating conditions of apartheid as well as the release of Nelson Mandela.

In that same tradition, Rep Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and current chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, led a delegation on a visit to Cuba, which included a meeting with former President Fidel Castro, to discuss proposed relaxing travel and financial restrictions.

For 50 years, any challenge to lifting the United States' economic embargoes toward Cuba has been viewed as radical. How radical is it to put an end to a policy that has not worked, based on Cold War thinking that no longer exist?

I am aware of the arguments against normalizing relations with Cuba, it could open a virtual Pandora's box of dictatorships spreading throughout Latin America. Doesn't that echo with the hollow ring of the "Domino Theory?"

Moreover, it assumes that Castro overthrew a paragon of democratic values in Fulgencio Batista in 1959. In 1954, Vice President Richard Nixon visited Havana to congratulate Batista on the winning an election in which his was the only name that appeared on the ballot.

But unlike Batista, Castro showed little interest in bending to the political will of the United States, which was more of a problem than ideology. But even President Kennedy saw the virtue of normalizing relations with Cuba in 1963, despite of the CIA's Operation Mongoose. Opponents to normalizing Cuban relations also cite its human rights record, which includes limiting freedoms of expression, assembly, the press; it's lack of due process and arbitrary imprisonments.

It's not as if the United States' foreign policy historically has been averse to supporting dictators in Latin America. U.S. support for individuals such as Augusto Pinochet and Anatasio Somoza may have been the necessary cost for America to maintain its sphere of influence in the region during the Cold War, but in retrospect it was propping up murderous dictators.

But as Lee said to me during our interview, "We can't let this moment pass by. The climate is definitely changing."

Not that long ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine an official congressional delegation meeting with Castro, with the blessings of the Speaker of the House.

Nontraditional bedfellows from Amnesty International to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have coalesced in support of ending a policy that has had five decades and 10 presidents to prove beyond any doubt to be a miserable failure.

Economic trade can do more to alter Cuban politics internally than anything achieved by staying the present course.

There are trading opportunities between Cuba and the U.S. that cannot happen as a result of the existing policies. Lee, whose district includes a number of biotech firms, told me about the advances Cuba has made in this area that could be beneficial to America.

According to Lee, "This is a trading relationship that Cuba wants. It's closer. The prices are better, the quality. So they want to buy American.

"Why in the world are we keeping our business from profiting from the Cuban market? It just doesn't make sense."

Lee's right; it doesn't make sense. But making sense is not always the criterion that drives U.S. foreign policy. The Cold War that fueled the current Cuban policy ended in 1991. What's driving the policy now?

Lee's leadership informs us that what was impossible in the '60s and '70s, radical in the '90s, is now simply the next logical step in a 50-year odyssey that has accomplished very little outside of political pandering.