Though not calling for an end to the embargo, Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark says the U.S. should `help the Cuban people.’
As his leading rivals for president hone positions on Cuba policy that appease South Florida’s powerful exile bloc, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark is gaining notice for a divergent approach: a willingness to discuss easing the decades-long trade embargo against the island and its dictator.
Clark stops short of saying he would lift sanctions, but his nuanced responses to reporters, exile leaders and even a questioner at a nationally televised debate last month in Boston leave little doubt that a Clark administration could well do more than any other in 40 years to build ties with Fidel Castro’s government.
‘‘In general embargoes normally, usually, they don’t work, and they certainly haven’t worked in the case of Cuba as far as ending the Castro regime,’’ Clark told reporters Monday during a visit to South Florida. “We don’t want to give a gift to Fidel Castro. But we do want to help the Cuban people achieve the same rights as everybody else in this hemisphere.’‘
Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO who led the Kosovo war and former chief of the U.S. Southern Command overseeing military operations in the Caribbean and Latin America, also frequently compares the situation in Cuba with communism in Eastern Europe—arguing that engagement, rather than isolation, paved the way for democracy.
‘‘The Iron Curtain was something they built, not something we imposed,’’ Clark told The Herald in September.
WORRY BY EXILES
The retired general’s approach has raised questions among some exile leaders, who said they assumed he favors lifting trade sanctions—a stance that would make it difficult for Clark, should he win the nomination, to campaign for Cuban-American votes against a Republican president who has threatened to veto any bill that ends the embargo.
Clark’s stance sharply contrasts with that taken by several of his opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Most notably, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the current Democratic front-runner, reversed his earlier opposition to the embargo while campaigning over the summer. He cited recent human rights abuses in Cuba and said now is the wrong time to debate sanctions. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, another leading Democratic contender, has also reached out to Cuban-American leaders in recent months to soothe them over his past remarks criticizing sanctions.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt are already viewed as strong supporters of the embargo.
While the mostly Republican Cuban-American bloc is not likely to play a meaningful role in the race for the Democratic nomination, recent tensions between the Bush administration and exile leaders give hope to national Democratic strategists that they could make gains next year—gains that could prove pivotal in the state that decided the 2000 election by just 537 votes.
While Clark’s words could dampen those hopes should he win the nomination or be chosen as a vice presidential running mate, advisors say his path illustrates the unique advantages of a general with extensive foreign affairs experience. Unlike less-seasoned rivals, they say, Clark has the gravitas to shape the Cuba debate without crafting new positions simply to curry political favor.
‘‘If Gen. Clark wanted to play politics with this issue, it would have been very easy to do, but he chose not to do that,’’ said James Rubin, a former State Department spokesman in the Clinton administration who is Clark’s senior foreign policy advisor.
Clark’s strategists add that the candidate feels no obligation to elaborate beyond broad themes to address specifics such as the controversial ‘‘wet foot-dry foot’’ immigration policy that allows Cubans to remain in the United States if they reach ground before being caught by the Coast Guard.
‘‘He doesn’t need to spell out his positions on everything just to show people that he’s thought through foreign policy issues,’’ Rubin said. “If you’re someone else who’s never dealt with foreign affairs, you might feel you need to show people your full-throated view.’‘
Still, Clark’s approach is proving complicated and, in some cases, confusing, as a rookie politician often criticized for taking vague positions refuses to delve deeper on Cuba than talking points.
Campaign aides abruptly ushered him out of a press conference Monday at a Delray Beach synagogue as a Herald reporter asked him whether he would support lifting trade sanctions.
‘‘I’ve given you a policy framework in which the art of diplomacy and leadership is to work within a framework to create a solution,’’ he said.
That same day, Clark placed a phone call to Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, in which he assured Garcia that he was not necessarily calling for an end to the embargo.
Previously, Garcia said, he and other exile leaders have assumed that Clark favored lifting the embargo.
But on Tuesday, after a series of calls from Clark’s campaign advisors, Garcia said the general’s views were not necessarily inconsistent with his own.
‘‘He denied that he wants to lift the embargo,’’ Garcia said of his Monday conversation with Clark. “What he said is that he does not believe that unilateral embargoes work, and any Cuban American who’s lived through the last 42 years of the trade embargo with Cuba agrees with that.’‘