While Miami burns... Obama and Cuban-American politics

In this year's election, half of Cuban-Americans who are eligible to vote either came from Cuba after 1994 or grew up in the United States. Unfortunately, the White House is passing up the opportunity to hold a rational discussion of Washington’s policy towards Cuba.  

Arturo Lopez-Levy
12 September 2012

A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/futureatlas.com. Some rights reserved.

US policy towards Latin America has paid a substantial price for President Obama’s kowtowing to the Miami hard-right wing. For example, Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of the Americas (OAS), and there is a chance that no Summit of the Americas will happen in 2015 unless the United States changes its position on Cuba’s participation. Several countries in the Americas, from Nicaragua to Ecuador, spent years without a US ambassador due to Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) obstructionist caprice.

In a clear distortion of American values and presidential foreign policy prerogatives, the pro-embargo machine is taking the debate away from questions related to security threats and the constitutional right to travel theoretically enjoyed by Americans, to whether it is fine, or “ethical”, for an American traveler to smoke a cigar, drink a mojito, and dance salsa. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's Treasury and State Department have surrendered the constitutional and moral high ground. Could somebody in the administration ask Senator Rubio: what is the problem with Americans having a good time once they do their full share of religious, educational, and humanitarian work in Cuba? And exactly what threat does a mojito or a salsa dance pose to American national security?  

According to Ellen Cragger from the Detroit Free Press, "the process of application for a people-to people-travel license grew up from six pages to more than a hundred. There has been also a massive slowdown on the responses of applications for new licenses and renewal of old ones for people-to people-travel."

Appeasement is precisely Obama’s strategy, except that it is aimed towards his adversaries in the Cuban-American right instead of Cuba. Nobody is fooled by such tactics. Watergate (with the Cuban exiles as plumbers) and the 2000 elections Dade County incidents should remind every Democrat that Miami doesn't play "second fiddle" to Chicago or any other place in dirty politics.  By showing no spine to defend democratic ground, the White House will not attract a single Cuban-American vote to its side. In fact, it might make more than one of its supporters stay at home in November.

Meanwhile, the Cuban-American pro-embargo lobby is working full speed to intimidate. In Miami, where nobody has ever apologized for using terrorism inside American territory, “somebody” set fire to the offices of Airline Brokers, the charter company that took American pilgrims to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. Not one of the Miami elected officials called for cooperating with the authorities or for condemning a terrorist attack on a business that honors every single rule in the book. The Democratic Party could have placed Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen between the “rock” of condemning practices that are perfectly fine for her base and the “hard place” of avoiding condemning a terrorist attack. It missed its chance.

What about the South Florida press and TV? The Miami Herald editorial page condemned the attack but did not demand a similar attitude from every elected official in the city. Neither Senators Rubio or Bill Nelson (D-FL) nor Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who represents the district where the company is located, were ever asked by the press for their opinions.

On Radio Marti, a government-funded "Radio Free Europe"-like broadcast emitting to Cuba, Obama appointed director Carlos Garcia to prove his bona fides to the Cuban-American right. In an editorial page in the spring, Mr. Garcia showed who the boss was when it comes to America's foreign policy towards Cuba. Garcia used taxpayers’ dollars to call Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega “a lackey”, because of his perceived indulgence towards the Castro regime. Of course, Garcia is entitled to express his own opinions under our first amendment. However, as long as Congress doesn’t pass a legislation committing the US government to censure and insult the Cuban Roman Catholic Church, the visible spokesman of those who defend dialogue and national reconciliation in Cuba, Mr. Garcia should not use a public institution to vent his adolescent catharsis.  

Garcia’s editorial was not a demonstration of force against the Castro regime but towards moderate Cubans and even Obama’s own State Department, who supported the Pope’s visit. None of this was a surprise to observers within the Cuban-American community, but there was a certain amount of hope that the White House would have some sense of decency and commitment to its own limited engagement policy towards Cuba. Wrong. Instead of supporting a constructive approach to President Raul Castro’s economic reform, Washington, not happy with one bad policy towards Cuba, is en route to having two: Obama’s respect for the 1996 Helms-Burton law (which strengthened the embargo and applied financial sanctions to non-US companies trading with Cuba), and Garcia’s preference for an even more contentious implementation of it.

The lack of commitment to Cuban Americans who defended Obama’s engagement steps, such as the easing of Cuban-American travel and people-to-people contacts, might have negative consequences for his support in South Florida. After many decades of exclusion from political life, both in Cuba and Miami, Cubans everywhere have an instinct to wait and see. One of the reasons why candidate Obama attracted the vote of Cuban-American progressive and moderates in 2008 was his article in the Miami Herald announcing clearly how he would reverse President George W. Bush’s policy on travel and remittances. It marked a contrast with then Republican presidential candidate Senator McCain’s commitment to fifty years of nonsense. 

But since January 2011, when the Obama Administration expanded the categories of people-to-people contacts, the White House has been reluctant to strengthen its followers in the Cuban-American community. Admittedly, the President has firmly defended his policies towards Cuba, especially his family travel policy, from attacks from the Florida right; but he has avoided taking a high profile on this matter.  The end of the restriction against family visits, a disposition that bothered many who were unable to visit sick parents or even to attend relatives’ funerals, was announced a day before the fifth Summit of the Americas. The measures in favor of people-to-people contacts of January 2011 were adopted on a Friday afternoon through a discreet communiqué from the White House. During the 2010 campaign, no major Democratic figure came to campaign with congressional candidate Joe Garcia, who supports the trade embargo but campaigned for everything Obama stands for concerning the travel policy. No wonder a suspicion has grown that Obama is content with the status quo of Republican dominance in the Cuban-American community.

A second term could hopefully prove us wrong on this. To reach Cuban-American voters under 45 years old, increasingly registered as Independents or Democrats, President Obama should double down on his narrative of engagement, people-to-people contacts and dialogue with Cuba. Electoral considerations aside, Cuba has become a symbolic test case of the Obama administration’s will to adopt a realist approach to strategic problems in the hemisphere, such as the calamitous state of the OAS, immigration reform and drug ban efforts. Were a new constructive era of US-Cuba relations to begin, the new populist regimes would lose a rallying flag for their radicalism. A concentration on “good neighbors” actual multilateralism and not rhetorical fights could make a beginning.

P.S: Two weeks ago, US government-funded Radio Marti transmitted to Cuba an interview about the virtues and difficulties of developing a porn star career in democracy. There is nothing wrong with this use of freedom of expression as long as it is not paid for by taxpayers’ dollars. But again, Radio Marti is a public institution. It is difficult to believe how Director Garcia’s information policies fit with the rules and standards of the FCC, or how providing advice about the beauty and odds of a porn career squares with the mission of “promoting democracy in Cuba”. Everywhere in America, outside Miami, any promotion of porn with taxpayers’ dollars would cost the resignation of every official involved. It is time for Mr. Garcia to go.

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