Will Obama Free Cuba?
Barack Obama addressed the once powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) on May 23. His Miami speech is still reverberating in the news media and across the Internet.
"Obama toughens stance on Cuba," proclaimed one British headline. "Obama says his Cuba policy is based on 'Libertad,'" announced the Associated Press.
But what did he really say that has the media and the pundits all atwitter?
Obama rightly pointed out that Latin America is a mess, but he wrongly blamed President Bush for this fact. For example, about Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Obama had this to say:
Since the Bush Administration launched a misguided war in Iraq, its policy in the Americas has been negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in peoples’ lives, and incapable of advancing our interests in the region.
No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.
Perhaps one of Obama's aides should remind him that Chavez was elected in Venezuela in 1998, more than two years before George W. Bush took office.
Unfortunately, demagoguery and anti-Americanism in Latin America predates President Bush by several decades. Citizens of Latin American countries have an uncanny penchant for electing or otherwise backing anti-American caudillos (strong men). This has been exacerbated by Chavez’s use of Venezuelan petrodollars to buy influence in the region. In the last several years we have witnessed the democratic election of anti-American despots in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. How Obama would make it so that these candidates are less appealing to their respective electorates is not immediately clear, particularly when he has opposed free trade agreements with the few allies we have in the region.
It seems to me that Obama does, in fact, believe in his ability to convince murderers and tyrants of the error of their ways with his silver tongue and flowery rhetoric -- as President Bush recently described past appeasers. I’m not so sure.
What is really striking about Obama’s CANF speech is how he characterized other political candidates as guilty of visiting Miami every four years, talking tough, and then going back to Washington while nothing changes in Cuba. Obama emphasized that he is different. His policy will be based on “libertad” (liberty). But the details of how he will achieve this elusive libertad for Cuba were conspicuous in their absence.
Presidential candidate Obama now claims he would not lift the embargo, a position that contradicts Illinois state senator Obama’s position in 2004. Yet it’s the embargo that is the greatest point of difference between most Republicans and most Democrats. Instead, Obama offers this minor modification to the embargo:
…I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It’s time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.
Under current law Cuban-Americans can send immediate family $300 per quarter and visit immediate family in Cuba once every three years. To put that into perspective, the average Cuban earns less than $20 per month at his job working for the state. Under current policy they can receive five times that amount each month from relatives abroad. Theoretically, such Cubans can afford to quit their jobs and simply live off remittances, even under the current policy which is unfairly characterized by some as "draconian."
If the goal is to make families “less dependent on the Castro regime,” I’d say we’re achieving that now. If remittances that amount to five times the typical monthly wage aren’t enough for the average Cuban then perhaps they should look to their “uncle Raul” in Havana rather than their aunt Juanita in Miami.
But would this policy tweak really bring libertad to Cuba? The current rules regarding remittances and travel restrictions were implemented in 2004, so in a sense Obama is advocating for a more permissive policy regarding remittances and travel to Cuba -- one we’ve had before. Remarkably, that policy didn’t have the desired effect of Cuban libertad either.
As a matter of fact, the travel and remittance restrictions are easily bypassed by those who have true humanitarian intentions. Cuban-Americans can send unlimited sums of money to relatives in Cuba through Canadian companies that do business on the web, and travel to Cuba through places like the Bahamas or Cancun is relatively easy. Additionally, I’ve not heard of a single Cuban-American being fined by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (the government agency that enforces the commercial embargo on Cuba) for making a legitimate family visit because it didn’t technically meet the requirements dictated by current policy. In other words, the idea that the tightened restrictions cause undue hardships is a canard that is being used for political purposes in an election year. Isn't this the kind of cynicism that Obama is supposed to be campaigning against?
Senator Obama claims to believe that going back to a more liberal travel and remittance policy -- like the one in place before 2004 -- is just the thing to free the political prisoners and bring justice to Cuba, but he doesn’t really explain why this time will be different. I guess it’s his confidence in that silver tongue again.
The reality is that Raul Castro will not implement important political and economic reforms willingly. If they are to happen at all he must be pressured into them, and the pressure needs to come from both inside and outside of Cuba. The president of the United States can use his bully pulpit to bring attention to the cause of the political opposition in Cuba and the prisoners of conscience. He can also use his influence with other heads of state to keep Cuba on the front burner. President Bush has done this consistently throughout his two terms. While it has not brought libertad to Cuba, today more people are aware of Cubans like the Afro-Cuban prisoner of conscience Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. They also know more about the reality of Cuban communism than ever before.
In essence, with his flip-flopping on the embargo Obama is guilty of what he is preaching against, namely pandering. His innovative strategy is nothing more than a minor modification to an existing policy wrapped in grandiose rhetoric: libertad!