Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Dam Starts Breaking

I was surprised to read in the NYT this morning that the Cuban American National Foundation, which has for many years been the main lobbying vehicle for the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, is now calling for expanded official relations, loosening of travel and remittance restrictions, and increasing business relations. This is particularly striking since the CANF, under the leadership of Jorge Mas Canosa (who died in 1997), was the Cuban equivalent of AIPAC: a lobby capable of single-handedly keeping US policy on a hard-line track. There is no other comparable group in the Cuban exile community. The CANF has not today gone so far as to call for an end to the economic blockade and rescinding of the Helms-Burton Act, but they did in their new proposal acknowledge that the old (ancient: since the early 60s) policy has failed. They can have no illusions that this proposal is a significant step toward full normalization of relations with Cuba.

There is a confluence of circumstances just now that together comprise a real opportunity to get to a Cuba policy that is not insane ("not insane" is a sort of step-one goal for US foreign policy at this point). The Cuban community in the US has changed considerably both through latter-day immigration and the coming of age of the grandchildren of the original exiles: neither group shares the emotional attitude of the 60s generation. US politicians of both parties needed Florida to win the presidency and it was true until recently that the Cuban vote could swing that (one of Bill Clinton's lowest moments was when he signed Helms-Burton). Meanwhile Yankee gradually started to pay attention to the US's own interests: both the US Chamber of Commerce and, believe it or not, the Pentagon have endorsed an end to the blockade for some years now. To top it all off, Bush-Cheney managed to turn Guantanamo Bay into a symbol for one of the darkest episodes in all of US history, tarnishing America's image in the world for years to come. I haven't expected Obama to spend political capital on the Cuban issue, he's got too much on his plate, but there does come a point where it's politically so easy that there's no reason not to make the change.

One last thing, the bad news, I guess, for my liberal-left readers and friends: I've been to Cuba, spent weeks living with faculty (and Party members) from the University of Havana, traveled out to small towns in the interior (where I was the guest of the local military commander, among others), wandered in Havana far from the tourist spots, and my opinion is that the centralized economy of Cuba doesn't work. Cuba is very poor, the quality of life is low, and these conditions cannot all be explained away by blaming the bloqueo. I am not a friend of the Castro government. I would like to see multiparty democracy and markets in Cuba. And you know what would be the most effective way of bringing an end to 50 years of a well-intentioned, patriotic, non-kleptocratic, but utterly failed dictatorship? Full normalization. The Party wouldn't last twelve months.

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