How Not To Persuade On The Cuba Issue

Steve Clemons criticizes the Obama Administration's Advisor on the upcoming Summit of the Americas, Jeffrey Davidow for his answer to Steve's question at a recent conference on Latin America. the exchange on the flip.

STEVE CLEMONS, Director, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation and Publisher, The Washington Note

I would like to just start with what David Rothkopf said about the Cuban embargo, "the beginning of the end" and ask Ambassador Davidow if you would agree with David's perspective on that, or perhaps his assertion.

It's very odd right now when one looks at Senator Richard Lugar and his statements on Cuba that seem to be running politically left of the President. Brent Scowcroft has said recently that Cuba makes no sense at all as a foreign policy problem. Russia's lack of patronage of Cuba has shown that we can't starve Cuba.

So, part of the question is if Barack Obama is the change agent he said, is Cuba more than Cuba? Is it a place where the steps you take there are so symbolic that they can have echo effects geostrategically on other parts of the world? Or are we leaving this in the same arena where Senator Martinez and others would like to have it which is we are going to create opportunities for a class of ethnic Americans but not look at the broader geostrategic equation?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW, White House Adviser for the Summit of the Americas

. . . Look it's obviously a highly contentious issue. From my perspective, a few points to make.

From my perspective, I think it would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity for this hemisphere, at the beginning of the Obama administration, to set down some guidelines and make some progress jointly by getting distracted by the Cuban issue. Cuba is not an issue for discussion at the Summit if one reads the Summit declaration and the documents on all the past year of negotiation. However, having said that, and given what we are reading in the press, it is probable that it will come up in some way.

The one point that I would respond to in Steve's question specifically is, "Is Cuba something larger than itself?" and the answer is 'yes, it is'. And I think that whatever the reasons have been in the 1960s for initiation of elements of our Cuban policy, the fact is in today's Hemisphere, Cuba is the odd man out.

Keep in mind that this meeting in Trinidad is a meeting of 34 democratic states. If we had been talking about a meeting of the hemisphere as little as twenty years ago, it would have been cast in a different light. There has been a remarkable historical transformation in this hemisphere, and a laudable one, toward democratically elected governments.

We may have difficulty with some of the governments that have been democratically elected, of course, but this Summit is a reunion of countries and presidents, every one of which has been elected by their populations. There is not one government represented at this Summit whose population would willingly accept the kind of restrictions on their civil, political and human rights that are commonplace in Cuba - and that remain commonplace.

So, I think as we talk about Cuba and talk about how we as a government deal with it and so forth, let's keep in mind that it is something larger than itself, it is in a way a memory of that which existed in the past and a caution of what may exist in the future unless we are totally committed to the question of democracy, human rights and representation of people. And lest you think, and I'm sure some of you do, that I am some sort of ideologue on this, take a look at the lead editorial in today's Washington Post. Maybe you think they are a bunch of ideologues as well, but I think they say it much better than I do.

So, we have been struggling with Cuba as a nation for close to half a century and there is a real focus on what we should be doing, but to answer the question, it is an important place beyond a small island 90 miles off our shore

Steve did not like this answer:

Barack Obama has given few indications thus far that he is willing to move a five decade failed relationship forward in a meaningful sense -- with the single exception that he may ironically codify "relaxation" for a class of ethnic Americans in a way that crudely discriminates against all other Americans.

We did not open Vietnam by relaxing travel and remittances for Vietnamese-Americans. And Obama's team -- for all of the ballyhoo about democracy promotion -- is promoting a policy of the United States government that restricts the American right of free travel anywhere. . . . President Obama is a busy man, but he better take a look at the brief that his team is preparing for him -- otherwise he'll learn too late that he's driving "an Edsel" to the Summit of the Americas.

As I explained to Steve in an e-mail exchange, I think he has completely misunderstood two important points about Davidow's response. First, Cuba is, in real practical terms, not really that important an issue. for people like me and Steve it is. For the country as a whole, not really. It is more of a mini- Israel/Palestine question, without the oil. That is there are groups deeply invested in the issue emotionally but the issue itself is just not that important to the United States. Unlike the Israel/Palestine question, the Cuba issue does not spill over into petro-politics and national security/terrorism issues.

I think the more important point however is that if you really want to persuade and change minds and the political climate on Cuba, you simply can not ignore the basic issue for embargo supporters - Cuba is an autocratic regime. You want the pro-embargo forces to listen? you want to undermine their arguments? Let them know you understand and appreciate their concern for Cuban democracy. Davidow was doing that. Unfortunately (and I say this as an adherent of lifting the embargo and all travel restrictions) Steve does not do that and instead endorses the crude ad hominem attacks on Cuban Americans who support the embargo by David Rothkopf:

DAVID J. ROTHKOPF, President and CEO, Garten Rothkopf

. . . The position of the Florida contingent on this is Paleolithic. The policy is indefensible on any grounds[.]

The reality is that Cuba may be special, but you have to ask yourself why it's therefore easier to travel to or do business with the Stalinist, nuclear weapon-toting North Koreans, or whether it's more comfortable for us to be totally economically integrated with the Saudi royal family and their depredations, or if we are concerned about human rights, why are we so integrated with and why are we the sole supporter of a government in Afghanistan that has just made rape in marriage legal and denies women the right to go outside without the approval of their husbands? So this notion that some how democracy alone is the only criteria that we should use in defining the nature of relationship doesn't stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever, and the reality is that only one country that has successfully been isolated by this fifty year embargo, and that is the United States of America.

Set aside the rather silly idea that Cuba is not isolated and the crude attacks on Cuban Americans, do you think this is an effective way to try and change US Cuba policy? I assure you it is a terrible way. At some point, those who rightly question the failed embargo must take stock of whether their own brand of activism, now also decades old, is effective. I say it is not.

Speaking for me only

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    I agree with this post (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Steve M on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 12:04:43 PM EST
    Let's stipulate that Cuba is a repressive autocratic regime.  Yes, even worse than the Bush Administration, even worse than Obama when he voted for those FISA amendments.

    But having said that, is this really a rational policy?  If you have a repressive regime that commits human rights abuses, the official policy of the United States is to starve you?  And that must remain our policy even when it turns out to be completely ineffective?

    Davidow makes an interesting point about the politics of this hemisphere as compared to a few decades ago.  But from where I sit, the democratization of Latin America happened in spite of US interference at least as much as it happened because of US interference.  Our Cuba policy is about as misguided as it could be.

    By the way, there may not be any petro-politics with respect to Cuba, but I'd be surprised if the prospect of lots and lots of sugar ethanol didn't impact the thinking of legislators from at least a few states that love their ethanol subsidies.  But that's a side point.

    Brazil's ethanol (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 12:19:48 PM EST
    is the real issue my friend.

    The U.S. did NOT (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by MKS on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 12:23:44 PM EST
    support democracy in Central America....

    In fact, the U.S. supported dictators who oppressed and killed their own people for decades.  

    The CIA's overthrow of Arbenz showed the U.S.'s disdain of democracy in Latin America....That coup led to Castro gaining much support.  In fact, the coup led Dr. Ernesto Guevara to team up with Castro....The U.S. thus had a hand in Castro's rise--as Castro himself said he would never let happen to him what happened to Arbenz.


    Well (none / 0) (#6)
    by Steve M on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:16:28 PM EST
    We certainly did not support democracy as an overriding goal, but I don't think it's true that we never supported a democratically elected regime.

    The record in Central America is not good (5.00 / 2) (#14)
    by MKS on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:00:02 PM EST
    Guatemala:  We supported dictators there well into the 1990s.  The Peace Accords in 1996 were brokered (quietly) by the Vatican.  And quite a few "elections" after that have been questionable.

    El Salvador:  U.S. Special Forces in the 1980s killed many.  The U.S. supported the right wing dictators.

    Nicaragua:  Daniel Ortega, love him or hate him, gave up power peacefully after losing an election, in part caused by the CIA's mining of the chief harbor, making Ortega the leader of a failed economy.  He had toppled another U.S. supported dictator in 1979.

    Sure, Cheney said we were supporting democracy in Central America....but really his kind of democracy is unrecognizable.

    The stated U.S. policy in Central America was to oppose communism.  Never mind there weren't that many communists to begin with--just labor leaders, agrarian reformers, and other FDR-style leftists.  There certainly was very little, if any, Soviet influence or support....Nothing really.

    And Castro never provided any military or financial support to the guerillas in Guatemala.....just occasional political indoctrination of the guerilla leaders once every couple of years.  The guerillas were fighting for their freedom.  The U.S. opposed them until Bill Clinton.  


    And at one time (none / 0) (#8)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:38:24 PM EST
    after the CIA had started to see the writing on the wall and before Batista went the way incompetent, corrupt puppets eventually go, they were actually funneling aid to Castro -- all in the hopes that he would prove to be as reliably crooked and amendable as your typical American pol.

    Of course later, when the best laid plans of mice and rats came unraveled, we got to witness our Cold War jihadist element lead us to the brink of nuclear exchange and lunatic episodes like Operation Northwoods; because it aint a Democracy (or an acceptable dictatorship), till we say so.


    Please provide a link for U.S. (5.00 / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:42:14 PM EST
    financial support of Fidel Castro before Castro came to power.  

    Oculus (none / 0) (#15)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:46:30 PM EST
    The first place I read about that particular episode in the CIAs byzantine finaglings in Cuba was in Anthony Summers book Conspiracy (possibly not the best source), but Im afraid you're going
    to have to do your own research leg work.

    Thanks. First I'd heard of (none / 0) (#16)
    by oculus on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:47:59 PM EST
    such financing, as I've read Batista was our guy.

    Our government is large and (none / 0) (#18)
    by inclusiveheart on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:52:27 PM EST
    lumbering.  It would not be the first time we chose to be on two sides of a fight, but I too thought we mostly tried to assassinate Castro rather than buying him off.

    He was our guy (none / 0) (#20)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:54:25 PM EST
    but as I said, the company had seen the writing on the wall. It's kinda like Abramoff giving money to Repubs and Dems.

    Doesn't seem plausible. (none / 0) (#21)
    by oculus on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:56:37 PM EST
    Outdated (none / 0) (#25)
    by squeaky on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 03:16:13 PM EST
    Posada is now wanted in Texas.

    EL PASO, Texas - An anti-Castro Cuban militant was accused Wednesday in a federal indictment of lying about his involvement in a series of 1997 bombings that targeted tourist spots in Cuba.



    What's the Point? (5.00 / 2) (#26)
    by ScottR on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 03:31:29 PM EST
    The whole embargo issue with Cuba is ridiculous. Take into account this: We fought a war against Communist China (Korean War). We fought a war against Communist Vietnamese (Vietnam War). And yet, although both countries are still Communist, and both have serious human rights problems, we freely trade with both countries today. We have never fought a war against Cuba, and yet a trade embargo continues, and we're the only country that has such an embargo in place. Canada, Mexico, European Union, everyone else trades freely with Cuba. It's time we stopped the stupidity and moved on from 1962.

    Florida as swing state (5.00 / 1) (#27)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 03:42:11 PM EST
    they dont wanna lose the exiled assassin, Contra drug dealer vote.

    This is about American politics not about Cuba... (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by kurtl on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 03:43:22 PM EST
    I suspect that most people would have a difficult time explaining why the embargo was put in place.  The fact is that it's not about being communist - The U.S. deals with plenty of communists constructively. It's also not about human rights (or if it is, this must be the justification for the U.S. prisons in Guantanamo Bay.) The U.S. has dealt constructively  with Peru, Chile, Argentina, Panama, China, etc. (to say nothing of Saudi Arabia) all of whom have human rights abuse issues. Moreover, the U.S. is quick to point out that Cubanos are not free to travel - while at the same time preventing American citizens from travelling there.

    I've been to Cuba. And not just on the beach.  From what I could tell, most Cubans are fed, clothed, educated, and have medical care that is not available in many other Latin American countries (e.g. Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, etc. etc. etc.)  so why the bee in the U.S. bonnet about Cuba??? Europe likes Cuba. Other Latino countries have no problems with Cuba.

    Personally, I think you'll find that the problem with Cuba resides in Florida, not in Havana.

    Get over it already. Move on!

    Too broad a brush (none / 0) (#30)
    by CoralGables on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 08:31:26 PM EST
    I think you'll find that the problem with Cuba resides in Florida

    The problem, if you view it as such, isn't really Florida but rather a part of South Florida. The majority of those opposed to lifting the embargo reside south of the Dade/Broward line. Also, a majority of Florida would likely vote to lift the travel ban and the embargo if such a vote was ever on the table. It's a vocal minority that were known in the past to launch a Molotov cocktail into travel agencies that booked travel to Cuba through Canada or Mexico.

    Florida: The Rules Are Different Here


    Embargo doesn't work (none / 0) (#2)
    by MKS on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 12:17:30 PM EST
    Time to try engagement as a means of changing Cuba....

    That really is the issue boiled down.

    Mr. Clemons primary concern seems to (none / 0) (#4)
    by oculus on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 12:19:54 PM EST
    be ability to travel to Cuba w/o possible fines by U.S. Treasury Dept.  

    Why Not? They have really nice beaches (none / 0) (#7)
    by tokin librul on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:24:09 PM EST
    be ability to travel to Cuba w/o possible fines by U.S. Treasury Dept.

    They've got some GREAT SURFING, too

    Let's stipulate that Cuba is a repressive autocratic regime.

    Israel, too.

    I wonder if the folks who abhor the palestinians efforts to achieve a state sympathize with the anti-castro terrorists who perpetually attack the Cuban revolution...

    Heh (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by Steve M on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:46:13 PM EST
    No stipulation as to Israel being as bad as Cuba.  In fact, that's the sort of attitude I satirized when I pointed out that yes, the government of Cuba is even more tyrannical than Bush!

    Bush wins in the murder (none / 0) (#17)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:51:20 PM EST
    department, but I suppose that dosnt qualify as tyrannical as long as he leaves us nice Dems and Repubs alone.

    Well yes (none / 0) (#19)
    by Steve M on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:53:22 PM EST
    Generally speaking, we call governments tyrannical because of what they do to their own citizens.  Warmongering is in a different category, but I don't think oppressive dictators get a free pass just because they didn't happen to control a nation large enough to start wars.

    Using my tax money for the warmongering (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 02:58:39 PM EST
    and four hundred dollar hammers is enough tyranny for me, Steve.

    Also (none / 0) (#24)
    by jondee on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 03:15:43 PM EST
    Its not a minor point to add that it's been a while since the U.S was directly threatened (invaded, targeted for assassinations etc) by a much more powerful nation closeby that had the capability of virtually wiping it out of existence. I imagine that scenario might tend to engender the same sort of siege mentality here as it has in Cuba.

    I agree. Just not all that altruistic (none / 0) (#9)
    by oculus on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:40:21 PM EST
    a motive, IMO.  

    The black congressional delegation (none / 0) (#11)
    by Saul on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:42:32 PM EST
    that went to Cuba this week.  What was their main purpose?  How was it viewed by the pro embargo side?

    I was hoping BTD would comment (none / 0) (#13)
    by oculus on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 01:56:20 PM EST
    re the caucus members visit and mtg. w/both Fidel and Raul.

    It's like it did not happen (none / 0) (#23)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 03:08:14 PM EST
    I am surprised WaPo bothered with it.

    It happens every couple of years.

    this is probably the 10th or 11th I have been aware of.


    BTD is clearly right. (none / 0) (#29)
    by oldpro on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 06:38:37 PM EST
    You know...flies, honey v. vinegar?

    Time to get creative diplomatically with Floridians.  How?  Co-opt them.  Put a few of the loudest, most influential naysayers/holdouts on a task force re US/Cuba policy, charge them with coming up with recommendations for change that improve people's lives and relationships with families.  De-Castroize the discussion.  And send them to Cuba for discussions and interviews.

    Then if they won't play nicely...deport them to Cuba.  (OK...that part was snark).

    Not about policy (none / 0) (#31)
    by ricosuave on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 11:36:07 PM EST
    For decades the sanctions on Cuba have been a domestic political issue more than a policy issue.  BTD is right to compare it to the Israel/Palestine issue--though there have been more policy reasons attached to that throughout the years, our Israel policy has been largely for the domestic political consumption of the religious right.

    The anti-embargo voices have gotten stronger in the past few years, but it is still true that there is little political gain for any politician to support lifting the embargo and there is still a high political cost.  It has always been worth it for US politicians to either avoid the issue or to strongly support the embargo.  

    The only difference today is the reduced Fidel role.  The anti-Cuban focus has always been strongly centered on him.  Even with that, I wouldn't expect any large changes from Obama on this.

    Fine, It's Stipulated that Castro is Jerk (none / 0) (#32)
    by kaleidescope on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 12:32:50 AM EST
    So let's all teabag Luis Posada Carriles and the other democracy-worshipping Cuban exiles (if that's what it takes) and get on with ending the stupid embargo.

    And I say this as a citizen of a country that tortures people around the world, that funded and directed Guatamalan and Salvadoran death squads, that still operates the School of the Americas, a country for which historically democracy has been a problem, not a solution.

    But if we say things Posada Carriles likes, ten maybe he'll let Obama end the embargo.