Sunday, July 5, 2015

Can Congress Thwart Obama's Lifeline to the Castros? - Arnold Ahlert

by Arnold Ahlert

Much like his ongoing dalliance with Iran, the president’s self-aggrandizing notion that either effort constitutes a worthwhile legacy is belied by the facts.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba will reestablish diplomatic ties. “This is what change looks like," the president declared. It remains to be seen if Congress will embrace the Communist dictatorship with as much gusto.

Congress is the entity that must approve spending millions on building an embassy, confirming an ambassador, and softening the sanctions imposed on a nation with an extensive track record of human rights violations. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is leading the charge against the administration. On Wednesday he made it clear he is opposed to the normalization process, and threatened to delay the nomination of an ambassador. “It is important for the United States to continue being a beacon of freedom for the Cuban people,” Rubio said in a written statement. “I intend to work with my colleagues to block the administration’s efforts to pursue diplomatic relations with Cuba and name an ambassador to Havana until substantive progress is made on these important issues.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) echoed those sentiments, insisting the reestablishment of an embassy “will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.”

Much like his ongoing dalliance with Iran, the president’s self-aggrandizing notion that either effort constitutes a worthwhile legacy is belied by the facts. In the case of Cuba, Obama has gotten virtually nothing in return for legitimizing a Communist regime that is arguably the most despotic in the Western Hemisphere. On the other hand, the Castro regime is insisting the U.S. “return to Cuba the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base,” and “compensate the Cuban people for all the human and economic damages caused by the United States policies.”

Obama, who has long yearned to close Gitmo, remains calculatingly indifferent to Cuban arrogance. "The progress we make today is another demonstration we don't have to be imprisoned by the past,” the president added during his Wednesday announcement. 

That’s an illuminating choice of words. A group called the Cuba Archive Project, an entity that "documents deaths and disappearances resulting from the Cuban revolution,” has established that more than 90,000 deaths involving executions, assassinations, death resulting from political imprisonment and “disappearances” are attributable to a regime "that maintains one of the most deplorable human rights records in the modern world,” according to a USA Today piece published in 2010. The writer of that piece further insisted that "unilateral changes in American policy would undeniably reward horrific behavior."

That column was written by Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. 

But that was then. Much like every progressive, for whom principles take a back seat to advancing an agenda by any means necessary, Wasserman Schultz’s position on Cuba has seemingly "evolved.” While she continues to insist she has "always been opposed to unearned changes in the status of our relationship with Cuba,” when asked by both the Daily Caller and the Miami Herald to define the word “evolved,” the Congresswoman’s office failed to respond. Moreover, the DNC itself released a statement praising Obama for laying out "a thoughtful rationale for the shift in US foreign policy (changes supported by a majority of the American people),” and hammering Republicans for continuing to embrace "the Cold War-era policy that most Americans are anxious to move beyond.”

A recent Pew Research Center poll reveals approximately two-thirds of the American public are indeed in favor of re-establishing relations (63 percent), and ending the trade embargo (66 percent). Yet another part of the poll reveals self-interest, rather than concern for the Cuban people, is the primary motivator: six-in-ten Americans believe the level of freedom in Cuba will remain where it is right now.

And then there is a small group of Americans who still remember the inconvenient reality that Cuba remains home to JoAnne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, who was convicted of first-degree murder following a 1973 New Jersey Turnpike shootout in which New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster was killed and Trooper James Harper was grievously wounded. Following her escape from prison in 1979, she lived as a fugitive until she fled to Cuba in 1984, where she was granted political asylum. It would seem like a no-brainer to condition any improvement in U.S-Cuba relations on her extradition, but that would undercut the former Black Liberation Army revolutionary’s newfound status as a leftist folk hero. A folk hero who should have a building named after her at UC Berkeley, according to the school’s Black Student Union.

The left is apparently satisfied that Obama got innocent American Alan Gross, jailed in a Cuban prison for five years, freed in exchange for three Cubans spies who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. 

But not all leftists. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), whose parents were Cuban immigrants, had no use for the deal. "Let's be clear, this was not a 'humanitarian' act by the Castro regime," he said of the prisoner exchange. "It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American. President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

Whether Congress will go along remains to be seen. Regardless, the reopening of the American embassy in Cuba is slated to occur on July 20, because the decision to do so falls outside the purview of Congress. And until the political machinations surrounding the appointment of an ambassador are resolved, the detail posted there will be headed by a headed by a "mission chief” who will perform largely similar duties. If the appointment of an ambassador becomes necessary, Obama is likely to nominate either diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, or former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CN), an early supporter of normalized relations.

The embargo is another story. Congress must approve lifting it, and there is resistance to doing so in both parties. The dissenters cite three main concerns, including the aforementioned human rights violations and harboring of American fugitives, as well as the Communist regime’s seizure of American property absent any compensation. On the other side of the equation, there are many American businesses eager to exploit a nation that’s been off limits to economic capitalization since the U.S. first imposed sanctions and then ultimately broke off diplomatic relations entirely with Fidel Castro’s government in the 1960s. The embargo itself has been in place for 54 years. 

Nonetheless there has already been a partial relaxation of restrictions -- once in 2009 when Obama first came into office and relaxed travel restrictions and parts of the embargo previously tightened by the Bush administration. That was followed by a further relaxation in 2011 when Obama allowed more open communication between Americans and their family and friends in Cuba, as well as allowing travel to the island for educational and religious purposes. Thus businesses such as Airbnb, Netflix and other companies have been allowed launch operations that bypass state monopolies, and some privatization of the service industry in response to increased American tourism has also occurred. Furthermore, several U.S. corporations, such Cargill and Procter & Gamble, have voiced their support for the lobbying group Engage Cuba that is pressuring Congress to normalize relations.
As for the president, he has long insisted the embargo has been ineffective. Richard Feinberg, a specialist on Latin America at the Brookings Institution, agrees. “The administration should also begin to consider another round of liberalizing initiatives, some under consideration in the U.S. Congress, to further relax travel restrictions, and to enable more U.S. firms--beyond agriculture and medicines--to assist the Cuban people,” he stated. Toward that end he urged the Obama administration to clarify rules for engaging with Cuba’s private sector and make it clear to banks they can support the use of credit cards by American visitors.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) remains unconvinced, insisting Obama gave the Castro regime “a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing.” GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush concurred, saying the reopening of the embassy gives credence to a “brutal” regime and has more to do with Obama’s legacy-building than genuine change. 

On the other hand, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who has been part of delegations visiting Cuba in the past seven months, was ecstatic. “Reopening embassies lays the foundation for a new, more productive relationship with Cuba that can support and advance key American priorities--including human rights, counter-narcotics cooperation, business opportunities for American companies, migration, family unification, and cultural and faith-based exchanges,” she said in a written statement.

Perhaps. But similar things were said about the democratization that would inevitably occur in China following Nixon’s initial attempt to normalize relations with the Communist giant beginning in 1972. That China has become more capitalistic is irrefutable. That the Communist Party retains its iron grip on over a billion people is also irrefutable, as is China’s newfound appetite for military adventurism—underwritten by trillions of American dollars that has made such adventurism possible. 

A re-energized Cuban Communist regime with more economic clout may be good for business, but like China, that may be all it’s good for. And it is worth remembering that only a year ago, Cuba reached an agreement with Russia to reopen a Soviet-era spy base on the island. Such is reminiscent of the “good old days” when the world held its breath waiting to see if the U.S. and USSR would go to war over the attempt by the Soviets to put ballistic missiles 90 miles from America’s border. 

Old Communist habits die hard—especially when the Obama administration is working so diligently to keep them alive.

Arnold Ahlert


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