“The right to know, to converse with others, to consult with them, to observe social, physical, political, and other phenomena abroad as well as at home gives meaning and substance to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”
--Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
A Gallup Poll in December 2006 showed that 67% of Americans believe that we should be free to travel to Cuba and that the US should normalize relations.
Yet the issue of US-Cuba relations has been absent from Presidential campaign discussion with the notable exception of two niche events, Univision’s Spanish language debates and the December 1st Brown and Black Forum in Des Moines.
During a campaign in which “change” and the US role in the world play a prominent role, Cuba should be attracting more attention as a symbol both of America’s international isolation and of the control of foreign policy by special interest groups and Washington insiders.
At least as much as Iraq, the unilateralism of the US embargo of Cuba and the Bush Administration’s interventionist obsession with regime change, have puzzled and angered our own Hemisphere and long time international allies. For sixteen years, the UN General Assembly has condemned US policy, most recently by a record setting 184 to 4. (Our only significant ally, Israel, votes with us but does not prevent its own people from traveling and doing substantial business in Cuba.)
Big differences do exist among the candidates about Cuba and the issue has occasionally been a flash point.
Except for Ron Paul, the Republicans vie with each other to take a harder line than President Bush. At stake are 10% of Republican primary votes cast by Cuban Americans in Florida.
When Mike Huckabee’s opposition to the embargo as Governor of rice exporting Arkansas was outed by a Fred Thompson campaign press release, Huckabee did a complete flip-flop within 24 hours, and received the endorsement of one of the most intransigent Cuban American leaders, the speaker of the Florida House.
(Thompson does not let his anti-Castro polemics interfere with embargo violating possession and consumption of Cuban cigars, as reported by the conservative Weekly Standard.)
On the Democratic side, the picture is more complicated, as brought out during the Brown and Black Forum in Des Moines.
Before he withdrew, Chris Dodd, as befits the chair of the Senate’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee (and a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic), was the only candidate to make a comprehensive policy statement on Cuba, calling for the end of the embargo, all travel restrictions, and the privileged status of illegal Cuban immigrants. Dennis Kucinich agrees on ending the embargo on trade and travel.
Barack Obama supports unrestricted family reunion travel and remittances for Cuban Americans(as did Bill Richardson). Obama deserves great credit for breaking with misleading stereotypes of the Cuba issue by publishing an Op Ed in the Miami Herald in August and following up to an enthusiastic audience in Little Havana. John Edwards favors family travel but not remittances.
Only about a third of Florida’s Cuban Americans are Democrats, but most of them are angry at the restrictive family travel policy of the Bush administration.
During the Forum, Obama reiterated that he saw family travel as a first step that, “would send a signal that we can build on once Castro is out of power.”
Candidates have not been asked about their position on the civil liberties issue of whether all Americans simply should have the same right to travel to Cuba as they do to every other country in the world. Nor have they been pressed on what they think of Bill Clinton’s policy of allowing non-tourist people to people travel by students, professionals, world affairs councils, religious and humanitarian organizations, sports teams, cultural groups, etc. Cuba’s ongoing transition makes it especially timely to renew such channels for informal “track two” contact.
Although Hillary Clinton has not been overtly challenged for her position on Cuba, she is the outlier among the Democrats. Her stance ironically is closer to the policy of Bush rather than that of her husband. She supports the current administration’s harsh move in 2004 to limit remittances to a narrow definition of family and to reduce Cuban American visits from annual, plus emergencies, to one visit every three years.
During the Brown and Black Forum, Clinton also echoed Bush’s belief that, “when Fidel Castro finally does pass on, there will be a tremendous pent up desire on the part of the Cuban people for freedom and for democracy.” This sentiment is common among the old guard in Miami, but not supported by first hand accounts in Cuba by journalists and diplomatic observers.
Clinton’s position is out of sync with the opinion of most Democrats. However, absent the kind of active pressure from potential caucus goers and primary voters that she gets on Iraq and Iran, Clinton reflects the inertia and conventional wisdom of inside-the-beltway foreign policy advisers. Her campaign staff may also have made a political judgment last spring that she had less need for liberal Cuban American voters in the Florida Democratic primary than for their more conservative brethren in the November election.
Clinton has more direct ties than any other Democratic candidate to the Cuban American community. Within days of her public embrace of the Bush policy last June, it was announced that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez had signed on as National Co-chair of her campaign. Menendez is progressive on every issue but Cuba and a prodigious fund raiser in Miami. In addition her sister-in-law, Maria Victoria Arias, is a well-connected Cuban American who actively opposed US-Cuba normalization within Bill Clinton’s administration.
Nevertheless, neither Clinton nor the other Democrats echo the Republican in simplemindedly equating Fidel and Raul Castro. Nor, however, do they acknowledge the broad gauged debate over economic and social reform that has distinguished Raul’s tenure as acting head of state.
The test will come if Fidel Castro passes away or officially retires during the campaign. Will the Democratic candidates follow Bush and say there is no reason to change US policy? Or will they recognize a new page has been turned and declare that as President they will allow Americans to freely travel and sell agricultural products and will begin serious negotiations to resolve obstacles to normal diplomatic, economic and cultural relations?
The author is executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development in New York