Hillary and Barack's Tussle Over the Cuba Question [Steve Clemons]

US-Cuba relations are not high on the roster of priorities for many Americans, and yet small moves in the terms of that relationship could have enormous political consequences.

Recently, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did battle over what their policies would be towards Cuba if elected President.  That's right -- this was not a discussion of Israel/Palestine, or withdrawing from Iraq, or bombing Iran, or whether to talk to dictators without preconditions.  This was about Cuba.

Chris Dodd started things off with an eloquent statement about US-Cuba relations released through my blog, The Washington Note as well as my perch at The Huffington Post.  Dodd set the gold standard in my view in articulating a policy that wasn't all warm and fuzzy about Castro but that spoke to America's 21st century economic and national security interests with Cuba in contrast to those who want to keep US-Cuba relations cocooned in an anachronistic Cold War era framework that has little relevancy today.

Dodd wants to end the many decades old embargo.  He wants to remove all travel restrictions -- and he wants to see commerce and trade begin to flow.  He wants American people to meet Cubans and wants to trigger an arbitrage between the norms of our society and theirs.  That is the American way. That's what we did with China.

Now Hillary Clinton -- who has visited China and who supports relations with Vietnam and who has praised Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill and Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns on what seems so far to be fairly successful nuclear deal-making with North Korea -- has spoken out against change in America's stance towards Cuba and in favor of George W. Bush's position.

Clinton doesn't support changing course in US-Cuba relations despite decades of failed results and seems to have no problem with something that Jeff Flake (R-AZ-6), the charismatic Republican Congressman from Arizona, does.  Flake has said:

If my travel which I think is my human right is going to be restricted, then it seems to me that a Communist government ought to be the one doing the restricting -- not my own government of the United States of America.

Hillary Clinton has stated quite clearly that she is content to stick with past policies -- those of President Bush -- when it comes to Cuba.

But Barack Obama has a completely different view.  While not quite up to the robustness of Chris Dodd's proposal, Obama wrote an oped for the Miami Herald, "Our Main Goal:  Freedom in Cuba," calling for restrictions on family-related travel to end and increasing financial amounts that families could remit to loved ones inside Cuba. After he wrote the piece, Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia -- who is also the former Executive Director of the Jorge Mas Canosa-run Cuban-American National Foundation, organized a large gathering of Miami citizens, an overwhelming number of whom were Cuban Americans, to meet with Obama.  Most report that it was a super success.  There were some protests -- but trivial compared to what one might have expected in Miami on this subject matter just a few years ago.

How could this be?  Hillary Clinton and those who want to keep US-Cuba relations in a cocooned, freeze-dried state have not looked at the recent polling data that show clearly that the Cuban-American voters in Florida are becoming divided over not only the family travel issue, but about the efficacy of the embargo itself.

Again to quote Republican Congressman Jeff Flake:

President Bush's tightened restrictions on Cuban-American family travel is now forcing people to choose whether they are going to attend their father's funeral or their mother's.

Cuban-Americans from Miami have told me that the powerful triumvirate of Cuban-Americans from Miami -- Ileana-Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart (the brothers are coincidentally the nephews by a failed marriage of their aunt to Fidel Castro) -- are facing their most serious electoral challenges yet, as younger Cuban-Americans as well as older are shifting in their policy preferences when it comes to the Cuba travel ban and embargo.

Recently, I went to Havana along with former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a blunt guy -- a military guy -- and doesn't suffer fools.  He was Colin Powell's aide for sixteen years and served as his aide when Powell was Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and also when Powell served as Secretary of the State.

Wilkerson has published two sets of "reflections" on Cuba and US-Cuba relations at the newly hatched, The Havana Note.  In the first, he starts with the admission that while Powell's chief of staff, he gave an "off the record" interview to GQ Magazine in which he said that our "US-Cuba policy was the stupidest policy on earth."

Wilkerson writes:

When I was Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State in 2004, I was exposed to some criticism within the Bush administration when I was quoted in GQ Magazine as saying that U.S. Cuba policy was the stupidest policy on earth. I deserved the criticism because my immediate boss, Colin Powell, had approved that policy. Not only that, he was co-chairman of the Committee set up to monitor implementation of it. Now I realize that I deserve far stronger criticism for not resigning my position in disgust over such policy. Let me tell you one of the most powerful reasons I feel that way.

There is a film by Lisandro Perez-Rey called "Those I Left Behind". The film documents the lives of several Cuban-American families against the backdrop of the Bush administration's tightened rules on travel to Cuba. It is devastating in its condemnation of those rules. In the film, you see and hear from people whose lives are in turmoil because of these inane rules. You don’t need to understand how damaging the rules are to helping democracy come to Cuba. You don’t need to understand how dangerous the rules are with respect to U.S. national security. You don’t need to appreciate that Cuba is the only country in the world which U.S. citizens are prohibited to visita violation of their constitutional rights. And you don't need to comprehend how much business America is losing because of the policies behind those rulespolicies that have failed abjectly now for some 46 years. All you need to do is witness the devastation in the lives of these families to know that the rules must be changed and as swiftly as possible.

Central to the film is the testimony of an American citizenan American soldier who has served in Iraqwho now finds it difficult if not impossible to visit his sons in Cuba. Sergeant Carlos Lazo, now somewhat famous for his advocacy for change, is shown talking to his two sons, Carlos Manuel and Carlos Raphael, who are in Cuba, via one of his many television appearances as he works for change. A resident of Seattle and a member of the Washington National Guard, Sergeant Lazo served as a combat medic in Iraq. Watching the scenes in the film of his sons in Cuba and the Sergeant in the United States, is wrenching. Particularly when Lazo talks of wanting to visit his sons prior to his departure for a year in Iraqa year where he easily could have been wounded or killedand then not being able to do so, you get the message he is trying to convey with a directness that is heartbreaking.

On another front, well before any of us had heard of Michael Moore's Sicko, we became exposed to the new edge of Cuban power -- soft power -- in Latin America and elsewhere:  the training and export of doctors.  Say what you want about Castro, who has outlived an incredible number of US presidents and may be around a bit longer, but exporting doctors is wildly different than the export of guns and revolution, which was what Cuba was doing for decades.

Here is an intro to Wilkerson's reflections of Cuba's national health care and medicine infrastructure and the global public diplomacy that they connect to it:

With Steve Clemons and others, I recently visited Cuba (March 2007). One of the areas of Cuban activity on which we focused was what has been described as one of the world's best systems for delivering healthcare to impoverished peoplein Cuba, in Venezuela and elsewhere in South and Central America, and increasingly in sub-Saharan Africa. We visited Cuba's medical "contingency brigade", for example, and talked with doctors and other healthcare personnel about the brigade's recent, highly successful tenure in Pakistan following the devastating earthquakes there in 2006. The passion in the doctors' eyes as they related their experiences in delivering basic healthcare in isolated, freezing regions of Pakistan was truly heartwarming. Some of the human interest stories the doctors related brought laughter to us all and served to demonstrate conclusively how deeply these medical personnel had been touched by their almost year-long experience in Pakistan. They were proud to announce that as a result of the good relations thus created, Cuba was asked to open its first-ever embassy in Islamabad. Talk about effective public diplomacy!

We also visited the Finlay Institute: Center for Research-Development and Production of Human Vaccinesincidentally, one of the places that the jacobin Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs, John Bolton, alleged in 2002 was manufacturing biological weapons. We didn't find any such activity (and we did discover that at best the Institute has a rudimentary Bio-Level III capability and no Bio-Level IV capabilitythe latter needed if one is to engage in sophisticated biological agent research and development). After the visit, we assumed that Bolton's insights were right up there with the CIA's in 2002-2003 with respect to Saddam Hussein's mobile biological weapons labs. It's safe to say we considered the assessment by the former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Marine General Charles Wilhelm, as more definitive: "During my three year tenure, from September 1997 until September 2000 at Southern Command, I didn't receive a single report or a single piece of evidence that would have led me to the conclusion that Cuba was in fact developing, producing or weaponizing biological or chemical agents."

Those interested in the realities of Cuba's health care progress -- and the many lessons we can learn -- can skip the Michael Moore film and instead see Salud!

In foreign policy circles, most people consider me to be a "realist".  I consider myself a hybrid of a number of schools.  I don't think that there are perfectly neat schools of thought any longer but whether I'm a 21st century evolved realist, an ethical realist, a progressive realist, or as Michael Lind would call me, a new American internationalist -- when I see US-Cuba realities as a manifestation of our failure to move forward in ways consistent with global needs and American interests, then my realist DNA perks up.

Cuba and the Cuban population remember the fall of the Soviet Union and survived a devastating, tortuous shrinking of their economy (and their personal body weight).  After the Russians, Venezuela cuddled up to the Cubans and now they essentially barter doctors and medical support for oil between each other.  China is the second biggest economic partner of Cuba and has designs on developing the oil fields in Cuban waters estimated to be about 9-12 billion barrels.  Americans are not there -- not involved.

Benetton has a store in old Havana.  British Petroleum -- which controls the Alaskan pipeline -- had a party on the roof of my hotel in Havana.  Israeli firms are managing large citrus groves there.  The Germans, Chinese, Australians, Canadians, Dutch, and Japanese are all visiting Havana and seeing the business opportunities.

But Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuiliani, Fred Thompson, and John McCain all want to keep the Bush administration's restrictions on trade and travel in place.

Lifting the travel ban makes the United States a more whole nation -- as travel is a natural right of ours, not to be taken away by our government.  This right should be restored to all Americans in my view.

But stepping away from the lofty for a moment, Hugo Chavez is not my favorite guy in Latin America. 

In my view, Chavez is a serious troublemaker made increasingly wealthy from high oil prices.  He is an increasingly significant constraint on America's global options -- and to knock him back a respectable bit would be a good thing.  Opening the travel pipe would steal from Chavez both the dependency and the affections of many Cubans and might send a very popular pro-American current through Cuba and much of Latin America.

More on this later -- but Cuba does matter and is already a point of differentiation between Obama, Clinton, and Dodd.  Fidel will not be around long in my estimation, and we need our political and policy leaders to begin plotting a policy not riveted in the past and not dominated by a shrinking cartel in Miami. 

-- Steve Clemons