Although he took some flack for a similar stance in last month’s CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate (see video at bottom of post), Barack Obama has an opinion piece published in The Miami Herald today in which he stresses the need for bilateral talks with Cuba and promises to “grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.”
The primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways. U.S. policy must be built around empowering the Cuban people, who ultimately hold the destiny of Cuba in their hands. The United States has a critical interest in seeing Cuba join the roster of stable and economically vibrant democracies in the Western Hemisphere. Such a development would bring us important security and economic benefits, and it would allow for new cooperation on migration, counter-narcotics and other issues.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba. This is particularly true of the administration’s decision to restrict the ability of Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their relatives in Cuba. This is both a humanitarian and a strategic issue. That decision has not only had a profoundly negative impact on the welfare of the Cuban people. It has also made them more dependent on the Castro regime and isolated them from the transformative message carried there by Cuban Americans.
Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grass-roots democracy on the island. Accordingly, I will grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.
Accordingly, I will use aggressive and principled diplomacy to send an important message: If a post-Fidel government begins opening Cuba to democratic change, the United States (the president working with Congress) is prepared to take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between our countries for the last five decades. That message coming from my administration in bilateral talks would be the best means of promoting Cuban freedom. To refuse to do so would substitute posturing for serious policy — and we have seen too much of that in other areas over the past six years.
Obama has been quite consistent on this point, and he’s right on in pushing for a more diplomatic approach to US foreign policy. In last month’s debate, when asked “would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” he answered “I would.” He then went on to give what I thought was a detailed, thoughtful, and uncharacteristically (for a presidential debate) substantial answer. See for yourself:
This answer ended up being blown out of proportion after the fact, as Hillary Clinton as well as much of the media pounced on him, calling him–among other things–naive. While watching the debate live, however, I thought that Obama gave an excellent answer. I suppose that he put himself out on a line by giving an answer that was not evasive, equivocating, or non-committal, but I had the sense that he was taking a principled (though still pragmatic) stand. It’s good to see that he’s still willing to back it up.