President Obama’s Trip to Cuba Should Avoid Cold War Rhetoric

The last time a sitting US President visited Cuba was January 1928, when Calvin Coolidge attended the Pan American Conference held in Havana. Now, 88 years later, President and Mrs. Obama will travel to Cuba on March 21, illustrating one of the most significant changes in hemispheric politics since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959: the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

For 56 years once Castro came to power, relations between the US and Cuba have spiraled. In 1960, in response to Cuban nationalization of US owned assets and trade restrictions, President Dwight Eisenhower cut diplomatic ties with the Castro government and initiated severe trade restrictions with Cuba. After a failed attempt by the CIA and a group of Cuban exiles at overthrowing the Cuban government in 1961, trade restrictions were escalated in February 1962, when the Kennedy administration imposed a complete economic embargo on Cuba. This was followed by the Cuban missile crisis in October of that year, after which relations continued to deteriorate for another half century. During this period, in an attack against the President’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy, the House passed legislation co-sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Dan Burton in September 1995 that tightened the embargo, extending sanctions against foreign countries and corporations that did business on the island. The following year the Cuban government shot down two small planes that had been deployed for a private propaganda mission over Cuba by an exile group.

In spite of continued deterioration caused by errors and miscalculations on both sides and fueled by the anti-Cuba lobby in the US, the relationship began to turn around soon after President Obama was reelected in 2012. Finally in December 2014, after 18 months of secret talks encouraged and brokered by Pope Francis, Presidents Barack Obama and Raoul Castro announced the restoration of diplomatic ties. President Obama declared that the embargo was counterproductive at achieving US foreign policy goals toward Cuba while the Government of Cuba expressed the hardship being suffered by its citizens due to the embargo. The United States and Cuba reopened their embassies in each other’s capitals on July 20 of 2015, though full termination of the embargo will require an Act of Congress.

The change in the relationship was widely welcomed. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that polls conducted shortly after President Obama’s announcement in December 2014 found that 63 percent of Americans supported resuming diplomatic relations, and 66 percent would like an end to the trade embargo. A June 2014 Florida International University poll indicated a majority of Cuban Americans also support normalizing ties and ending the embargo. Nonetheless, several members of Congress from both parties, including Cuban-American Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have denounced the rapprochement between the US and Cuba. Senator Rubio has even pledged to block the nomination of an ambassador to Cuba. Unfortunately, the administration’s moves toward solidifying rapprochement give conflicting signals: on one hand, it is clear that the administration seeks to develop as much support for rapprochement and termination of the embargo as possible to make reversal of the policy unlikely after the Administration leaves office.  On the other hand, the history of US rapprochement with countries such as China and Vietnam notwithstanding, the US administration’s public announcements that accompany each step clearly reflect a cold war posture, peppered with rhetoric that panders to the anti-Castro lobby.

This raises a disturbing question. Is the cold war rhetoric and bluff intended to mollify the anti-Castro lobby? And, if that’s how to mollify them, is that a successful way to win them over to the idea of improving relations? When White House spokesman Josh Earnest announced that President Obama would be meeting with dissidents, he made sure to state “the guest list for that meeting will be determined solely by the White House. The President will meet with whomever he chooses to meet with.” The AFP began its March 4 article announcing President Obama’s travel plans by stating “The White House on Friday said Cuba’s communist government will have no say in which dissidents President Barack Obama meets during his visit to the island later this month.” Our point is not that President Obama should not meet with dissidents. Far from it. Nor is our point that the President should not meet with whomever he wishes. Our point is that diplomacy is not served and our policy objectives are not met by using a rhetoric that puts the Cuban government on the defensive.

The United States can have more influence through people-to-people cultural exchange, by listening, and by firm but cordial discussion. Let’s cool it on the bluff and bluster, and show the anti-rapprochement contingent how real diplomacy works.

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