I Publius: What will be coming to Cuba now?

During the long presidential campaign, Barack Obama went on record about opening things up with Cuba. He was right to break free from the politics of failure, and doing so took some political courage.

American politicians have seen Cuba as a third rail for years. You touch it, you die. When Fidel Castro came to power, the influential Cuban middle and upper classes took a powder and many of them settled in Florida. Since Florida became a swing state in American presidential elections, no politician has wanted to mess with liberalizing relations with Cuba — this despite the fact that we have relations with far more oppressive countries.

Ever since John F. Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, travel restrictions have waxed and waned, but it is only now that we can see the potential for real change. While America has dithered on the Cuba question, other countries have invested money and resources. Make no mistake about the fact that the Castro boys are indeed dictators and they have a good deal of popular support. During the aforementioned Bay of Pigs debacle, the folks were supposed to rise up as one and reject the revolution. That didn’t happen. Nor should we forget that former dictator Fulgencio Batista knew something about dictating. In those days, there was no health care or universal education, and there was a rather healthy mafia that did not exactly have the concerns of the people at heart.

So when the Castro brothers are gone, will there emerge a flourishing democracy that encompasses the best of both systems or will we go back to the bad old Batista days? Obama is moving slowly. By making it easier for Cubans to return to their island home and to send money to relatives, and by offering American telecommunications expertise to the Cubans, he is demonstrating a “third way” to the Cubans: “Look at what they, the Americans have, and look at what we could have.”

In a way, Obama’s brilliance is shown by the fact that he is appealing to the very group of Cubans that has previously supported Republicans. In permitting them to visit and send money home, he is addressing two concerns that run right to the Cuban-Americans’ hearts. These folks want to take care of their parents, cousins and grandparents. They want to share what they have. You will notice that Obama did not open all of Cuba to all of our corporations and to all of us. That will come later.

Now, another interesting thing is going on: Another game is being played out on the three-dimensional chess board. There’s a group of Republicans chomping at the bit who want to see Cuba opened up to all interests. Their motives are unclear. Cuba is a potential market for U.S. goods and services. Instead of getting their ears beaten in by industrial competitors from other countries, our corporations want in on the action. This is a fascinating turn of events. Obama has been calling on the Republicans to cooperate on a number of fronts in a bipartisan way. Up until now, the answer has been a resounding “no.” It may well be that a new coalition of senators and Congressmen may find themselves in the position of going Obama one better when it comes to Cuba. Remember that many of these leading senators and Congressmen are from the very party that brought us George W. Bush who made it a crime even to go to Cuba.

One last thing: I guarantee that some of you who are reading this column will claim that I am an apologist for the Castros. Nothing could be further from the truth. These men are dictators. Their secret police have rounded up, imprisoned and tortured dissidents, just like the Saudis or the Pakistanis. I’m all for more Cuban democratization and the way to get it is to spend more time exposing the Cubans to what we’ve got, not cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 4/18/09

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