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Obama Will Give Reform in Cuba a Nudge if Not a Shove

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Barack Obama's gutsy appearance Friday in Miami before the Cuban-American National Foundation was of course a refreshing change of pace from the lame and stale "stay-the-course" boilerplate that's been passing for a John McCain foreign policy vision. Unlike McCain, who despite the baby-step reforms in Cuba is stubbornly holding out for the status quo unless the Castro brothers' regime basically rolls over and dismantles itself -- sure, like that's going to happen -- Obama enunciated more clearly than ever that "after eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions." He continued, "every four years [pols] come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington and nothing changes in Cuba," pointing out, "that's what John McCain did the other day. He joined the parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade."

In declaring his administration would meet with the Raúl Castro régime without preconditions, Obama was not being naïve but impeccably realistic -- and in fact following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who, after all, never insisted that Communist China, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union hold free elections and essentially give up their dictatorships before negotiating with them. At the same time, he hasn't pronounced himself ready just yet to let go of the entire embargo, except for immediately lifting the limits on Cuban-Americans traveling to see their families. Can't frighten the horses by deep-sixing the whole shebang too suddenly, you understand, but a campaign insider told me earlier this year that this is more a question of timing and tactics than intention.

The very fact that he was giving this spiel in front of an outfit whose late leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, was a notorious Reagan-era warhorse who made his career as a leader of the embargo-industrial complex, was striking in and of itself. This time around, Mas' son, current foundation chairman Jorge Mas Santos, said he expected his group would take flak over this, but "we... will continue to provide leadership no matter the price" (finally). And its president, Pepe Hernández, slammed McCain for last Tuesday's bit of Miami pandering to the Cuban exile's "intransigentes," commenting, "we need to try new approaches and new methods. There was nothing in his speech that we have not heard before."

I also noticed something especially interesting in the extensive coverage of Obama's Cuba comments in yesterday's El País (the New York Times of Spain, where I'm currently traveling on assignment). The paper's Havana correspondent quoted Social Democratic dissident Manuel Cuesta Morúa as saying, "if Obama won the election and kept his promise, it would mean the beginning of normalization of relations between the two countries, and that would have a direct impact on the reform process in Cuba," including the régime "easing up on its local cold war" against dissidents. Added an unnamed Communist Party analyst, with McCain "it would be the same policy as always there, and the same answer here. But an Obama win would be a political game-changer that would really get us hopping." In other words, the régime would finally be forced to make a meaningful response.

All in all, somewhat heady stuff. I can't recall when we've had a presidential candidate actively making the sensible case that when it comes to Cuba, the United States finally has to start pulling itself out of the hole our leaders have dug deeper and deeper over the past decades. Win or lose, Obama's advocacy will still likely have an effect -- multiplied by the growing chorus of voices even to the right of center that admit the embargo's been a bust and something new needs to be tried (one of the latest was that old Republican cold warrior Brent Scowcroft who, as reported in The Huffington Post on May 13, reiterated that "the embargo makes no sense. It doesn't do anything -- it's quite clear we cannot starve Cuba to death. It's a domestic issue"). Add to that the fact that Raúl Castro and company are indeed slowly rolling out reforms -- still limited, thus far -- and it will become harder and harder to keep Americans convinced that it's all just more of same on the island and that the current policy toward Cuba is necessary or effective.

It seems that all of this may in fact be starting to have some amount of chipping-away effect -- the latest indication being that South Florida's "Gang of Three," embargo-exploiting GOP Congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother Mario, along with their partner in crime Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are feeling the heat from their first viable Democratic challengers ever, Raúl Martínez, Joe García, and Annette Taddeo. Without warning or explanation, these three reprehensible Repubs have just pulled out of a series of debates with their challengers that had been planned by the AFL-CIO -- which underscores that the gang can't defend itself against its massive watercarrying for the Bush-Cheney régime, and is especially bankrupt on Cuba, with nothing left to say beyond bleating the same old tired platitudes and trumpeting the longest-running failure in current U.S. foreign-policy (a failure they've helped keep on life-support, and the Castro régime along with it, by providing a handy all-purpose -- and much used -- scapegoat for its own dismal failures).

So, particularly now with competition heating up south of the border between democracy and capitalism on one hand and command-economy authoritarianism on the other (once championed by Cuba and now obnoxiously by Hugo Chavez' Venezuela), we can look forward to an interesting summer and fall on the Cuba front. And if a President Obama and an increased Democratic majority do manage to emerge from this November's elections, we can also hope, at long last, for some sane, humane, and perhaps even effective policies on Cuba -- not to mention a much-needed rebuilding of this country's tattered position in Latin America. Call it la audacia of hope.