Thursday, May 8, 2008

Obama’s clear thinking on Cuba bodes well for future foreign policy

The Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia
Thu. May 8 - 6:18 AM

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama continues to extend his lead in the pledged delegate count over Hillary Clinton. His overall victory, at least in terms of pledged and superdelegate totals, will soon become a foregone conclusion.

Yet, few Americans, or Canadians for that matter, know a great deal about the foreign policy predilections of the Democratic pretender to the throne. At one point, Obama mused out loud about recklessly bombing al-Qaida forces inside Pakistan – with or without the permission of the Pakistani government.

While he has surrounded himself with a clutch of foreign policy experts, the jury is still out on how he sees America’s place in the world. In his stump speech, he is fond of saying opaquely: "It is time to turn the page on eight years of a foreign policy that has made us less safe and less respected in the world."

But on the controversial topic of U.S.-Cuban relations, his position has exhibited a more precise, sophisticated and forward-looking thrust. During his brief tenure as a U.S. senator, he has twice voted to end funding for government-supported TV Marti, which has failed miserably in beaming its anti-Cuba television programming to the island.

Moreover, in an August opinion piece in the Miami Herald, he stated boldly: "A democratic opening in Cuba is, and should be, the foremost objective of our policy." He then went on to note: "We need a clear strategy to achieve it – one that takes some limited steps now to spread the message of freedom on the island, but preserves our ability to bargain on behalf of democracy with a post-Fidel government."

More to the point, his administration would recognize that "bilateral talks would be the best means of promoting Cuban freedom."

Predictably, the decidedly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was quick to criticize Obama for not seeking to empower Cuba’s embattled opposition groups in their quest to hasten democratic reforms in Cuba. The influential lobby group went on to explain in a press release that talks between the two countries "should not take place without the presence of a significant number of Cuba’s opposition and civil society leaders at the table, and certainly, be inclusive of the voice of the Cuban exile community."

For them, any opening toward Havana should first await the introduction of fundamental political and economic reforms on the island: "The Cuban American National Foundation firmly believes that talks with a post-Castro government should not be held until certain conditions are met as a sign of good faith – primarily the release of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience."

Part of the problem for Havana, though, is that it won’t accept any preconditions on bilateral negotiations or the fact that CANF purports to speak for the wider exile community in Miami.

Unlike the wrong-headed approaches of both CANF and the Bush administration, Obama would prefer to set the diplomatic table with some "limited steps" before actually breaking bread with the Cubans.

Accordingly, he advocates "a sensible strategic approach" that would be underpinned by a move to "grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island." And as he rightly pointed out: "The primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways."

Obama believes that U.S. interests are best advanced by bolstering Cubans and by having Cuba participate in hemispheric affairs as a full-fledged democratic partner. "Such a development would bring us important security and economic benefits, and it would allow for new co-operation on migration, counter-narcotics and other issues," he maintains.

And in a significant shift in U.S. Cuba policy – provided that Cuba does open itself to democratic change – Obama is willing to "take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between our countries for the last five decades." Obama’s talk of easing the U.S. embargo is obviously predicated on its inability to topple the Castro government since its imposition almost 50 years ago.

The Cubans, for their part, were clearly intrigued by Obama’s new approach to bilateral relations and expressed their willingness to consider his proposals. Speaking on behalf of the government, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque was quoted as saying that these "declarations express a sentiment shared by the majority of the United States …"

Clearly, many things would have to fall into place before any rapprochement between the two countries would take place. And this option may be more likely today now that Fidel Castro has formally stepped down as president of Cuba’s Council of State and Commander-in-Chief.

Obama does appear, moreover, to have significant electoral wind in his sails and the Cubans (under Raul Castro) have recently expressed their willingness to sit down with Washington to talk about the normalization of relations.

So, while Obama appears to lack experience and depth on matters of international diplomacy, he seems to have an excellent grasp of the finer points of a heretofore failed U.S. policy toward Cuba. And if his clear and fresh thinking on Cuba is any indication of his ability to grapple with complex foreign policy issues, it bodes well for how he is likely to engage with the rest of the world.

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

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