By PETER McKENNA | The Globe and Mail
For more than 40 years now, the thrust of U.S. policy toward Cuba has remained largely static: confrontational, isolationist and vitriolic. You would think that someone might suggest, after four decades of muddling through, that an alternative approach toward Cuba would be in order.
Cuba is still considered a Communist enemy of the United States, and a major rights-abusing state, even though the United States has openly courted an economic relationship with China. Relations are even warming with Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya (to which Britain’s PM, Tony Blair, recently made a visit), not to mention that U.S. engagement with Vietnam continues.
For a host of reasons, not the least of which is the electoral significance of the state of Florida (and its nearly one million Cuban exiles), the United States can’t seem to get past its deep-seated antipathy toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re talking about President George W. Bush or Democratic presidential contender, John Kerry.
At the mid-January special Summit of the Americas in Mexico, in pointing to Cuba’s record on human rights and democratic freedoms, Mr. Bush bluntly told the assembled nations: “Together we will succeed, because the spirit of liberty still thrives, even in the darkest corners of Fidel Castro’s prisons.” More recently, his administration revoked provisions that enabled U.S. scholars and representatives of non-governmental organizations to visit Cuba for academic, cultural and professional exchanges.
At the moment, the presumptive Democratic nominee has taken an even harder line. In a recent Florida radio interview, Mr. Kerry went out of his way to declare: “I’m pretty tough on Castro, because I think he’s running one of the last vestiges of a Stalinist secret-police government in the world.” It’s clear that the Democrats are desperate to avoid a repeat performance of the controversial 2000 election, when Mr. Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes.
But initially, Mr. Kerry voted against Helms-Burton, and supported legislation to loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba and on the return of cash remittances that Cuban-Americans send back to the island. In a newspaper interview in 2000, he also expressed support for re-evaluating the 40-year U.S. economic blockade of Cuba.
That was then, of course. Today, on the eve of a presidential election campaign, Mr. Kerry will remind voters in Florida that he does not support lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, or any changes in how the United States gives preferential treatment to Cuban migrants reaching its shores.
Still, the contradictions in U.S. policy continue to trouble him. A few weeks ago in Florida, Mr. Kerry responded to journalists by saying: “I haven’t resolved what to do. I’m going to talk to a lot of people in Florida.”
Mr. Kerry’s lack of clarity fits nicely with a U.S. policy toward Cuba that defies understanding. A good many Americans, and the business community more than most, know that the United States’ Cuba policy cannot be logically justified and properly defended. But they fully realize that an election trumps common sense when it comes to revolutionary Cuba.
Peter McKenna is an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, and the co-author of Canada-Cuba Relations: The Other Good Neighbour Policy.