Rumblings about an imminent shift in US policy toward Cuba culminated Wednesday with President Obama’s groundbreaking announcement to swap spies, open embassies, loosen US travel, banking and other restrictions toward fully restoring diplomatic relations with the island were met with jubilation on both sides of the Florida straits. The timing is no accident. The Cuba change stole the spotlight from a serious revelation earlier that day of chief Democratic fundraiser and US Sen. Bob Menendez (with the acquiescence of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) securing passage into the US of a banned ‘human smuggler’ in exchange for campaign contributions. One was reminded of the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal breaking the morning Pope John Paul became the first pope to travel to Cuba, or the Bush administration’s accusing Cuba of developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ the very day Jimmy Carter made his first trip in 2002.
A chastened Sen. Menendez remained relatively quiet while his Republican Cuban American cohorts Ileana Ros Lehtinen and Marco Rubio decried ‘abuse of executive authority.’ Too bad none of them have none of the critics had been in Cuba to see the changes. It was perfectly appropriate for the President to exercise his executive power in this manner; the policy was created by executive order by Kennedy almost a half century ago. The bellicose policy provided the common enemy Fidel Castro needed to support a revolutionary project that continues under the leadership of Raul Castro and a highly skilled contingent of young Cuban leaders who seek to continue socialist ideals under an increasingly market-oriented system.
The embargo would have been gone long ago (and maybe along with it, Castro) but for an elaborate system of thinly disguised political patronage born in the early 80s under President Reagan. Reagan helped create the Cuban American National Foundation (patterned after the America Israel Political Action Committee) and provided millions through embargo-supporting programs like the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, Radio and TV Marti and the US Agency for International Development. ‘Transition’ and ‘democracy building’ became catch-words for opportunists like Otto Reich who helped write the laws that funded a self-perpetuating ‘ embargo industry.’ Another discredited New Jersey Senator, Robert Torricelli rolled out the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act; The infamous 1996 Helms-Burton law doled out millions more to embargo supporters despite its blatant violation of international norms.
Normalizing relations with Cuba will help improve relations with the rest of the world, which voted to condemn the embargo at the United Nations for the 23rd time in October of this year, with only the US and Israel voting against. Panama breathes a sigh of relief now that Obama can safely attend the April 2015 Summit of the Americas along with Cuba, as was called for unanimously by all nations of the Organization of American States. It will also provide a shot in the arm to Gulf Coast states for whom Cuba used to be a number one trading partner. It is a new era, but Obama can only do so much. The real work lies in defunding the anachronistic laws which have allowed the ‘embargo industry’ to hold the national interest hostage for too long.