America’s Cuba Policy is the “Edsel” of the US Foreign Policy Portfolio

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58 edsel twn.jpg
Latin America policy uber diva Julia Sweig chaired a news-making gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington yesterday morning. It was excellent, and the CFR has audio of the entire event here.
In response to a question I posed to Sweig’s panel, Obama administration Summit of the Americas point man Jeffrey Davidow fell back on droopy anachronisms while Foreign Policy magazine blogger and best-selling writer and geostrategic interpreter David Rothkopf hit the ball out of the park with his statement:

“US-Cuba policy is the Edsel of American foreign policy.”

sweig twn.jpgThe full line-up on Sweig’s panel included Jeffrey Davidow, White House Adviser for the Summit of the Americas and former US Ambassador to Mexico; Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank; and David J. Rothkopf, President and CEO, Garten Rothkopf and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
5th Summit of the Americas.jpgThe Summit of the Americas, which President Obama is attending, will convene in Trinidad & Tobago from April 17-19.
After Davidow successfully avoided mentioning the word “Cuba” in his primary remarks on the Obama administration’s game plan for the Summit of the Americas, the former US Ambassador to Mexico finally offered in his penultimate exhale an acknowledgement that “Cuba might come up” in the meeting.
And then he finished stating that other “flamboyant personalities may ‘flambay’” — a clear nod to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
When I had a chance to pose a question, I pressed Davidow pretty hard on what he tried to avoid.
The exchange between Ambassador Davidow, David Rothkopf, and myself follows below.
What is interesting and disconcerting is that Barack Obama’s point guy on this upcoming Summit gave the unreconstructed, neoconservative-friendly, ideologically vapid, ‘unchastened by five decades of embargo failure’ answer to my question on Cuba.
Has Obama read the brief that his people are preparing for him on Cuba?
Davidow embraced one of the worst single editorials I have read in years in the Washington Post titled “Coddling Cuba.”
And Rothkopf did his part to say that on US-Cuba policy, the American position has no clothes — and has become completely illegitimate in the eyes of the world and undermines America’s own, parochial national interests.
Here is the exchange in full between Sweig, Davidow, Rothkopf, and myself:

Council on Foreign Relations – Washington, DC
April 9, 2009
Perspectives on the Fifth Summit of the Americas: Cooperation on Development, Energy, and the Environment
Speakers:
Jeffrey Davidow, White House Adviser for the Summit of the Americas
Luis Alberto Moreno, President, Inter-American Development Bank
David J. Rothkopf, President and CEO, Garten Rothkopf
Presider:
Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Partial Transcript of Q&A Exchange

clemons_02.jpgSTEVE CLEMONS, Director, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation and Publisher, The Washington Note
I would like to just start with what David Rothkopf said about the Cuban embargo, “the beginning of the end” and ask Ambassador Davidow if you would agree with David’s perspective on that, or perhaps his assertion.
It’s very odd right now when one looks at Senator Richard Lugar and his statements on Cuba that seem to be running politically left of the President. Brent Scowcroft has said recently that Cuba makes no sense at all as a foreign policy problem. Russia’s lack of patronage of Cuba has shown that we can’t starve Cuba.
So, part of the question is if Barack Obama is the change agent he said, is Cuba more than Cuba? Is it a place where the steps you take there are so symbolic that they can have echo effects geostrategically on other parts of the world?
Or are we leaving this in the same arena where Senator Martinez and others would like to have it which is we are going to create opportunities for a class of ethnic Americans but not look at the broader geostrategic equation?
JULIA SWEIG, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Ambassador Davidow? It’s the “four letter word” – not Peru – that you are asked to address now.
jeffery_davidow.jpgAMBASSADOR JEFFREY DAVIDOW, White House Adviser for the Summit of the Americas
I will try to answer that question. . .
JULIA SWEIG, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
And other panelists can chime in . . .
AMBASSADOR JEFFREY DAVIDOW
Yes, why don’t they!
Look it’s obviously a highly contentious issue. From my perspective, a few points to make.
From my perspective, I think it would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity for this hemisphere, at the beginning of the Obama administration, to set down some guidelines and make some progress jointly by getting distracted by the Cuban issue.
Cuba is not an issue for discussion at the Summit if one reads the Summit declaration and the documents on all the past year of negotiation. However, having said that, and given what we are reading in the press, it is probable that it will come up in some way.
The one point that I would respond to in Steve’s question specifically is, “Is Cuba something larger than itself?” and the answer is ‘yes, it is’.
And I think that whatever the reasons have been in the 1960s for initiation of elements of our Cuban policy, the fact is in today’s Hemisphere, Cuba is the odd man out.
Keep in mind that this meeting in Trinidad is a meeting of 34 democratic states.
If we had been talking about a meeting of the hemisphere as little as twenty years ago, it would have been cast in a different light.
There has been a remarkable historical transformation in this hemisphere, and a laudable one, toward democratically elected governments.
We may have difficulty with some of the governments that have been democratically elected, of course, but this Summit is a reunion of countries and presidents, every one of which has been elected by their populations.
There is not one government represented at this Summit whose population would willingly accept the kind of restrictions on their civil, political and human rights that are commonplace in Cuba – and that remain commonplace.
So, I think as we talk about Cuba and talk about how we as a government deal with it and so forth, let’s keep in mind that it is something larger than itself, it is in a way a memory of that which existed in the past and a caution of what may exist in the future unless we are totally committed to the question of democracy, human rights and representation of people.
And lest you think, and I’m sure some of you do, that I am some sort of ideologue on this, take a look at the lead editorial in today’s Washington Post. Maybe you think they are a bunch of ideologues as well, but I think they say it much better than I do.
So, we have been struggling with Cuba as a nation for close to half a century and there is a real focus on what we should be doing, but to answer the question, it is an important place beyond a small island 90 miles off our shore
21_davidroth_lgl.jpgDAVID J. ROTHKOPF, President and CEO, Garten Rothkopf
If I may make a couple of brief comments on this- and I am unconstrained by affiliation with the United States government right now – so perhaps they will be in a slightly different direction.
The editorial in today’s Washington Post was absurd.
The position of the Florida contingent on this is Paleolithic.
The policy is indefensible on any grounds,
The reality is that Cuba may be special, but you have to ask yourself why it’s therefore easier to travel to or do business with the Stalinist, nuclear weapon-toting North Koreans, or whether it’s more comfortable for us to be totally economically integrated with the Saudi royal family and their depredations, or if we are concerned about human rights, why are we so integrated with and why are we the sole supporter of a government in Afghanistan that has just made rape in marriage legal and denies women the right to go outside without the approval of their husbands?
So this notion that some how democracy alone is the only criteria that we should use in defining the nature of relationship doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever, and the reality is that only one country that has successfully been isolated by this fifty year embargo, and that is the United States of America.
Our [US-Cuba] policy dates back to the Edsel.
It is the Edsel of American foreign policy.
[END]

David Rothkopf is absolutely right.
Barack Obama has given few indications thus far that he is willing to move a five decade failed relationship forward in a meaningful sense — with the single exception that he may ironically codify “relaxation” for a class of ethnic Americans in a way that crudely discriminates against all other Americans.
We did not open Vietnam by relaxing travel and remittances for Vietnamese-Americans.
And Obama’s team — for all of the ballyhoo about democracy promotion — is promoting a policy of the United States government that restricts the American right of free travel anywhere.
I thought that we lived in a real democracy — and that it was supposed to be Communist governments — not democracies — that restricted the travel rights of their citizens.
President Obama is a busy man, but he better take a look at the brief that his team is preparing for him — otherwise he’ll learn too late that he’s driving “an Edsel” to the Summit of the Americas.
– Steve Clemons

Comments

17 comments on “America’s Cuba Policy is the “Edsel” of the US Foreign Policy Portfolio

  1. skycloud says:

    Russian’s Deputy Prime Minister arrived in Cuba to visit with Raul and Fidel Castro sparking rumors of Russia’s interest in using Cuba for a military base should the US pullout of Guantanamo Bay.

    Reply

  2. Lotro powerleveling says:

    Classic exposition, I have also mentioned it in my blog article. But it is a pity that almost no friend discussed it with me. I am very happy to see your article.

    Reply

  3. lotro powerleveling says:

    I am glad to talk with you and you give me great help! Thanks for that,I am wonderring if I can contact you via email when I meet problems.

    Reply

  4. Igor Sill says:

    April 26, 2009
    Obama and the Cuban/US issue: Guantanamo Bay
    Guantanamo Bay has repeatedly been in the news lately, and has become well known as prison for more than 670 US enemy combatants who have been incarcerated, interrogated and tortured over the Bush administration’s mandate on the war over global terrorism. Today, 240 prisoners await relocation as Guantanamo Bay detention facility prepares to close operations over the next few months.
    But, there’s lots of deep history and unresolved issues associated with Guantanamo Bay’s US Naval Base. Guantanamo is merely the tip of the political iceberg.
    It’s generally agreed that conveying Guantanamo to Cuban sovereignty would have a significant positive effect throughout Latin America as well as the World community. It would certainly standout as an act of generous goodwill by the US, and could potentially result in a range of reciprical positive actions from Cuba.
    However, President Obama is very well aware of the many complex issues arising from such a gesture. There are numerous considerations which Cuba would need to address and resolve in return for the US’ conveyance of Guantanamo Bay’s facilities to Cuba. He recognizes that Cuba needs to remedy its Human Rights violations stance. He also realizes that Cuba will need to find a way to adopt an acceptable version of Democracy in order to achieve this stature if Cuba is allowed to re-enter the Organization of American States (OAS), which it actively seeks to do. There remains a range of equally important issues including the release of political prisoners; restitution of outstanding Cuban confiscated property claims by former Cubans now living in the US; restitution of US Corporate interests and properties confiscated by Cuba following the revolution; restitution to the families of Brothers to the Rescue over Cuba’s fatal downing of two search planes in February of 1996; and a series of other Cuban governmental misdeeds.
    In 1996, the US Congress passed the Helms-Burton act which strengthened the embargo, essentially stating that the White House (President Obama) cannot lift the embargo, without first receiving Congressional approval in advance.
    One of the many regulations contained within the Helms-Burton Act is a ban preventing Cuba’s access and use of a fiber-optic underwater cable connecting Mexico’s Cancun to Miami which runs very nearby (32 kilometers) to Cuba. This severely limited Internet access by Cubans, forcing them to use low-capacity Satellites instead of higher speed cable.
    Since then Cuba and Venezuela began a process to circumvent the Helms-Burton Act by jointly running two pairs of fiber-optic cables from Santiago, Cuba to Vargas in Venezuela. President Obama’s congressionally approved changes to policy toward Cuba, now includes the authorization of US telecommunications firms to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications facilities linking the US directly to Cuba, as well as joint ventures with Cuba’s telecommunications providers. This will also provide satellite television and radio service to viewers and listeners in Cuba, a sought after US benefit of Democratic views.
    “This will increase the means through which Cubans on the island can communicate with each other and with persons outside of Cuba. Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island.” Stated the White House announcement. The change in US policy would also serve to make Cuba less reliant on Venezuela.
    The U.S. government continues to list Cuba, along with Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Sudan on the State Department’s Terrorism list, though knowledgeable intelligence experts and analysts are skeptical of Cuba’s inclusion on the list. In 1998, a comprehensive review by the US intelligence community concluded that Cuba does not pose a threat to US national security, implying that Cuba is no longer participating in sponsoring terrorism. CDI also supported this opinion as of October, 2004. Lifting the terrorism ban would allow Cuba to receive economic and financial aid, free trade and much needed aid. The impact would be a huge boom to Cuba, its people, and the greater Caribbean economy.
    Last summer, Igor Sechin, Russian’s Deputy Prime Minister arrived in Cuba to visit with Raul and Fidel Castro sparking rumors of Russia’s interest in using Cuba for a military base should the US pullout of Guantanamo Bay. Igor Sechin worked closely with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during the Cold War and enjoys a long relationship with the Castros. Putin followed up on Sechin’s visit with an announcement that Russia should “restore its position in Cuba and other countries.” However, the Castros and Cuban leaders were offended that the Russian party hadn’t consulted with them with their interests in deploying military aircraft in advance of the meeting. Fidel Castro refused to partake in the sessions, and discussions were limited to joint oil exploration, education and economic matters. The ways of old Moscow were rebuffed.
    The US has a strong, vested interest in cooperating with Cuba on issues of human rights, resumption of normalized bilateral trade relations, management of migration, denial of criminal sanctuary, money-laundering, human trafficking, climate change initiatives, cooperation on sources of sustainable energy, public health, collaboration on drug trafficking enforcement, money laundering and organized crime.
    Developing and implementing successful policies on these issues will require a sustained coordinated effort between the US and Cuba, involving the Cuban people as their voices become stronger within Cuba as well as the countries of the Western Hemisphere.
    Ultimately, however, the closing of Guantanamo would not only help clean up US’ international reputation, but could contribute to what everyone envisions: a more productive, open and cooperative relationship between Cuba and the US.
    President Obama’s administration has an excellent outlook and respect for Cuba and its people, along with an excellent playing card, the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Let us hope that he plays this card right.
    Igor M. Sill

    Reply

  5. Kathleen G says:

    Ros Lehtinen was part of the I lobby team that backed Hamas into a corner after the fair and legal election of Hamas by the Palestinian people.
    Ros Lehtinen is a rep for fringe groups

    Reply

  6. Luis Moro says:

    Excellent, intelligent and unfortunately rare in the halls of Congress
    controlled by Cuban policy puppet master Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
    See a great photo of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and all her Cuba policy
    high-jackers in Cuba at http://www.EveryThingCUBA.com
    See you in Cuba in 200

    Reply

  7. S Brennan says:

    So Steve,
    How is this different from the Bush policies in Latin America?
    “Obama administration…point man Jeffrey Davidow fell back on droopy anachronisms while…David Rothkopf hit the ball…with:
    “US-Cuba policy is the Edsel of American foreign policy.”
    Davidow successfully avoided mentioning the word “Cuba” in his primary remarks on the Obama administration’s game plan for the Summit of the Americas…finally [Davidow] offered…that “Cuba might come up” in the meeting…then he finished stating that other “flamboyant personalities may ‘flambé” — [refering to] Hugo Chavez.”
    All of which sounds like a better spoken version of the Bush policies which are short on hope and are based on a colonial interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.
    Ummm..nobody I know voted for this…how about you?

    Reply

  8. jonst says:

    Z wrote:
    “I understand this is not Steve Clemons’s position. It is not David Rothkopf’s position. They are anguished about the embargo, ashamed of American policy toward Cuba; they want to apologize, or rather have President Obama apologize, for it. True products of their generation, they want it now. And these are Obama’s supporters.”
    What can one write in response to this nonsense?
    Z also wrote: “…..unless it thought the Cuban embargo was the most important issue for the United States “.
    It is EXACTLY because shitcanning the embargo is so UNIMPORTANT that it could have been, and should have been, announced at this meeting. This is solely a domestic issue. Of real concern to a small group of people, in the grand scale of things. I do not offer that disparagingly. People, on both sides of the issue, who care deeply about keeping, or lifting the embargo, have good reason to care deeply about it. But the vast majority of Americans? This is small potatoes. More about Florida Presidential politics than anything else. Because whatever generational slanders Z tosses out there….one thing is for sure, for the vast majority of people under the age of, say, 40—and perhaps, 50—Cuba is old and meaningless, news. If you brought it up at colleges in America your most likely response would be from cigar smokers saying ‘good, maybe Cubans cigars will be cheaper now’.

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  9. Don Bacon says:

    Zathras is wrong, of course, and there will be a change.

    Reply

  10. Zathras says:

    With friends like these….
    Even an administration that wanted to do a complete overhaul of America’s Cuba policy wouldn’t do it via a unilateral announcement in a meeting with 33 other governments. Nor would it use such an occasion to shunt aside everything else on that meeting’s agenda unless it thought the Cuban embargo was the most important issue for the United States in Latin America, an absurd proposition. Nor would it ask nothing of the Cuban government in exchange for a policy change promising substantial economic benefits to Cuba. Nor would it give those Cubans dissatisfied with the fact that they live in a police state the contemptuous middle finger Steve Clemons does in his post here.
    Frankly, I’m a lot more doubtful that President Obama will liquidate the American military commitment in Iraq than that he will end up making fairly substantial changes in American policy toward Cuba. In the position his administration finds itself in right now, juggling two wars as well as the most serious economic crisis in 80 years (and incidentally multiple Latin American trade issues and vicious drug gang warfare on America’s southern border), I’m OK with Obama taking his time with the Cuba problem. I certainly hope he, Secretary Clinton and the rest of his team are thinking in terms of negotiating an agreement linking changes in Cuba policy with Cuban government concessions on issues of interest to the United States.
    I understand this is not Steve Clemons’s position. It is not David Rothkopf’s position. They are anguished about the embargo, ashamed of American policy toward Cuba; they want to apologize, or rather have President Obama apologize, for it. True products of their generation, they want it now. And these are Obama’s supporters.

    Reply

  11. lurker says:

    It’s time for the embargo to end and to end the tyranny of South Florida and a couple of suburbs in New Jersey.
    Thanks Steven for this home run.

    Reply

  12. E. Krauss says:

    Absolutely right on, Steve. Let’s look comparatively at the two sides. North Korea’s and Iran’s isolation from the US and the West have not made those regimes any weaker or vulnerable. Eastern European and Soviet Union’s Communist regimes were not undermined by isolation and blockade but ultimately by porous borders of information, example, and contact with the democracies of the West. China’s Maoist extremism was not moderated by isolation but by economic integration with the West. Policies of isolation and information, contact, and trade containment don’t necessarily weaken dictatorships but rather provide them with the “Petri dish” to cultivate without challenge their own authoritarian bacteria.

    Reply

  13. rich says:

    Amazing: I’d been about post several threads back that U.S. Counter-insurgency & U.A.V. ops were the Edsel of foreign policy.
    Ironic: Cuba drives the antiquated cars, but American use of arbitrary blunt instruments — whether embargo or predator drones — is the antiquated bludgeon that sets back American interests and costs us all fear, favor and faction before finally depriving us of any victory.
    Just sayin’.
    Both tools bludgeon the opposition; both are totally unable to distinguish combatant from civilian or ally from foe.
    Both methods deny the American military & its civilian leaders what they both need most: the ability to engage with those willing, respond to the concerns of those unwilling; and construct a political landcape that meets overall needs while outflanking the latter.
    Not hard.
    Unless the military’s require to fight with its eyes closed, like it did in Vietnam.
    Oh, and btw?
    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/227/story/65839.html?ref=fp2
    Turns out the coverup IS worse than the crime.

    Reply

  14. ... says:

    the usa is in favour of democracy?? i thought the usa was only interested in military dictatorships continuing, after having set up and encouraged so many… quote from Davidow “let’s keep in mind that it is something larger than itself, it is in a way a memory of that which existed in the past and a caution of what may exist in the future unless we are totally committed to the question of democracy, human rights and representation of people.” i think he was talking about the usa, not cuba…
    steve, thanks for your efforts on this issue.. it is always fascinating to see how backward some things are, but the usa takes the cake for this one.. this ‘ambassador’ represents a continuation of the past… change is something obama talked about, but that is it!!

    Reply

  15. John McAuliff says:

    My assumption is that President Obama and the White House team have simply not focused on the Summit and the choice they are forced to choose there between the past and future, even if it is not convenient for domestic politics. The resulting vacuum has left policy in the hands of inertia.
    On reflection, I cannot imagine that Obama’s folks will want to maintain the Bush-light tone of Davidow’s remarks or be confronted by a situation where it is the US vs. everyone else, including our best friends Brazil and Mexico.
    It is vital for the Administration and the US that the magic moment of Europe and Turkey be extended to our own neighborhood where we face the greatest scrutiny. I have written how to do that at http://thehavananote.com/2009/04/a_false_step_on_the_path_to_th_1.html and will post more on thehavananote later today.
    John McAuliff

    Reply

  16. JohnH says:

    It’s great that David Rothkopf is calling out the BS: “this notion that some how democracy alone is the only criteria that we should use in defining the nature of relationship doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever.”
    The fact that there are 34 democracies in Latin America has occurred largely DESPITE the US, not because of any allegedly pro-democracy inclination of the the US government.

    Reply

  17. new to the blog says:

    Steve,
    This is really brilliant, and you gut the rationale of those who cling to the embargo.
    And you are so right that this is harmful to American interests and even more importantly undermines the “human right” of travel of all Americans.
    Rothkopf’s comments that we as Americans can go to North Korea more easily than Cuba shows how warped and disfigured our foreign policy in this case has become.

    Reply

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