Saturday, June 14, 2008

John McCain doesn’t get Cuba

The Chronicle Herald - Nova Scotia, Canada

By PETER McKENNA

Sat. Jun 14 - 5:42 AM

It looks like the U.S. presidential contest in November could very well revolve around issues of foreign policy – including the thorny "Cuban problem."

Given the importance of Cuban-Americans in Florida during the 2000 campaign, and the increasing number of Hispanic voters in general, the electoral significance of Cuba should not be dismissed lightly.

Comparatively speaking, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama could not be more different than when it comes to the controversial issue of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Among other things, Obama has called for the removal of restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans and on money transfers to the island. More significant, he maintains that "bilateral talks would be the best means of promoting Cuban freedom."

John McCain recently mocked Obama’s position on Cuba, dismissing outright any idea of breaking bread with Raul Castro. He then went on to say: "These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators – there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy."

Shortly thereafter, Obama responded to McCain’s criticism in an interview with the Miami Herald and reiterated his willingness to speak directly with the Cuban government. "Now, I know that John McCain likes to characterize this as me immediately having Raul Castro over for tea. What I’ve said is that we would set a series of meetings with low-level diplomats, set up some preparation, but that over time I would be willing to meet and talk very directly about what we expect from the Cuban regime," he explained.

But if he were elected U.S. president, what exactly would John McCain’s Cuba policy look like? Moreover, would it serve to foster meaningful change in revolutionary Cuba?

For the most part, McCain would make no substantive changes to Washington’s existing policy of hostility and isolation toward Havana. In other words, not one thing would change under a McCain administration unless significant political reforms (including free elections) took place in Cuba first.

Speaking to a Miami audience on May 20, Cuba’s Independence Day, McCain stated unequivocally: "My administration will press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labour unions, and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections. The embargo must stay in place until these basic elements of democratic society are met."

As if to defy the rest of the world and to dismiss what Cubans themselves want, McCain went on to add: "While our Cuba policy will not always be in accord with that of our hemispheric and European partners, my administration will begin an active dialogue with them to develop a plan for a post-Castro Cuba, a plan that will spark rapid change and a new awakening in that country."

Like the George Bush White House, it is essentially a stay-the-course Cuba policy of confrontation, of imposing conditions on the Cuban government, and of eschewing any dialogue with Havana. Furthermore, he has absolutely no intention of rescinding the five decades-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba (even though he led the push to remove the embargo against Vietnam in the 1990s) or the controversial Helms-Burton law (which seeks to penalize Canadians for doing business in Cuba).

Additionally, there would be no change to the regulations governing the visits of Cuban-Americans to the island (once every three years), the restrictions on the amount of remittances that could be sent to relatives in Cuba ($1,200 annually), the numbers of Cubans who are permitted to enter the U.S. legally (a set quota of 20,000), or its "wet foot/dry foot" policy toward accepting "illegal" Cuban migrants.

It amounts to more of an abdication of policy-making responsibility, leaving it in the hands of mostly implacable Cuban exiles in Miami. Simply put, it is a recipe for more of the same old, shop-worn mantra that talking tough to the Cubans will eventually bring them around.

It might very well prove to be politically expedient, but it doesn’t make for intelligent foreign policy. Clearly, 50 years of a U.S.-Cuba stalemate has exposed the fatal flaws of such a Cold War policy posture.

As Obama pointed out: "I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians. Every four years, they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington and nothing changes in Cuba."

Indeed, it is a failed strategy that has done precious little to advance economic and political reforms in Cuba. More than anything, it has served to fortify the Cuban government, to strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Havana, and to galvanize the people around their political leadership.

Each candidate’s Cuba policy is certain to enter into the campaign not only in Florida, but wherever the two leaders debate issues of U.S. foreign policy. But if the sophistication of their positions on Cuba is any indication of how well they will do in November, it won’t be a good campaign for the McCain team.

Peter McKenna is an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island and the co-author of the forthcoming book, Fighting Words: Competing Voices Over the Cuban Revolution.

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