Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cuba is ripe for U.S. engagement

Cuba is ripe for U.S. engagement
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Published: Thursday, Jul. 30, 2009 - 5:09 am

WASHINGTON -- President Obama is worthy of admiration for his efforts to
improve relations with America's adversaries: Iran, North Korea and a
few others. But for most of those states, it's time to give it up, and
the Obama administration appears to realize that.

At the same time, one adversarial state remains ripe for engagement, but
Washington doesn't seem interested.

During the campaign, Republicans belittled Obama's remark in a debate
two years ago that he would engage hostile nations "without
precondition." At the time, that comment did seem naive. But the
controversy surrounding it appears to have chastened him, and he has
approached this issue with appropriate circumspection. He repeatedly let
the nations know he was willing, perhaps even eager, to improve
relations after the calamitous Bush years. And then, one by one, each of
those countries let Obama know in no uncertain terms that he was wasting
his time.

In the months since Obama took office, North Korea has test fired
long-range missiles, threatened and belittled South Korea, and conducted
a nuclear test - even as Washington let Pyongyang know that it wanted to
improve relations. Finally, it appears, the administration has had enough.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Phuket, Thailand, last week, was
characteristically late for a session where, it turned out, a North
Korean delegate was schedule to make a statement. The North Koreans
stormed out when Clinton failed to show up to hear them. Then they held
a news conference to denounce her.

For her part, Clinton said America and its Asian allies have reached a "
new consensus" on North Korean policy - to ratchet up pressure, exactly
the opposite of Obama's original goal: improving relations.

Of course, relations with Iran have gone no better. Before the elections
there last month, Tehran had responded equivocally to Obama's public
overtures, including his greeting to "the people and leaders of the
Islamic Republic of Iran" in March, on the Persian New Year.

Even before the Iranian election, there was considerable debate within
the administration about the appropriate approach to Iran. During the
American presidential campaign, Clinton ridiculed the idea of engaging
Iran. But the Iranian government's brutal response to the post-election
demonstrations there swung most everyone to her point of view. A few
weeks after the vote, Obama said he was "appalled and outraged by the
threats, beatings and imprisonments." In Asia last week, Clinton said
the United States would extend a "defensive shield" over the Middle East
if Iran continued to develop nuclear weapons. She declined to explain
exactly what that meant. Still, quite obviously, the attempted
rapprochement is dead.

The questioner in that campaign debate two years ago asked Obama about
five states: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba. One of those
states seems positively benign compared to the others. That's Cuba. The
Cuban regime has no apparent interest in nuclear or biological weaponry,
unlike Iran and North Korea. It is not guilty of sponsoring terrorism in
neighboring states, unlike Syria. It is no longer trying to export
"socialist revolution," unlike Venezuela. It is not guilty of nuclear
proliferation, unlike North Korea.

Cuba's sin: It has a repressive, dictatorial government - just like
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, many of America's most important allies.

Here is a problem pregnant for resolution. What's the hold up? Domestic
politics, of course - the longstanding perception that a president who
makes overtures to Cuba will lose Florida in the next election. But that
calculus has changed. Second and even third-generation Cuban-Americans
now dominate that community and do not hold the hard-line views of their

The Obama administration reversed several Bush-era policies. It relaxed
restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel and remittances to the island,
eased limitations on phone calls and took other small steps.
Essentially, Obama has put relations with Cuba back more or less where
they were when President Bill Clinton left office.

In a CNN poll a few months ago, 71 percent of Americans said they
favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Meantime, the state of
the Cuban people grows ever-more desperate. Last year's tropical storms
and the worldwide economic crisis have pushed even the moderately well
off into poverty. Some Cubans are hungry. Obviously that is the Castro
government's fault, not Obama's. But I believe restored relations with
the United States would, in time, force the Cuban government to
liberalize. With that would come increased prosperity.

Obama promised fresh thinking. This problem, 50 years old, could not be
more stale.


Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent
for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford
University. Readers may send him e-mail at:

Cuba is ripe for U.S. engagement - Sacramento Opinion - Sacramento
Editorial | Sacramento Bee (30 July 2009)

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