Obama’s Cuba Policy & the Taming of the Shrill

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening, President Obama devoted 127 words to his new policy on Cuba.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.”

In a passage lasting just a minute, he stated publicly that our country was abandoning our failed regime change policies, he prodded Cuba to open up politically, he invoked Pope Francis’s blessing, and he welcomed Alan Gross home.

Give the man his due — this paragraph packed a lot of punch. We had little time to celebrate or savor this historic change in direction. The following morning, diplomats representing the U.S. and Cuba sat down and began talking about not just migration issues, but the mechanics of normalizing diplomatic relations and the enduring differences we have on human rights.

The accelerating pace of change around his Cuba policy reforms feels remarkable. It “only” took us six decades of failure to get here. He announced the decision to normalize relations just five weeks ago. The new regulations to implement parts of the new policy have been out for eight days. More important, the President’s decision to go big on Cuba policy – and to disregard his strongest critics – is paying off with the American people.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, his public approval is at its highest point in more than a year. Sixty percent of those polled nationally – but also 66% of those 18-34, 65% of Hispanics, 58% of white voters, 51% of those living in the south, even 41% of Republicans answering the survey – support what the president has done. Presidents are never bigger than when they are the vital centers of action in our public life.

Perhaps that is why his sternest critics seem so small by comparison. While they are still in a position to make trouble for the policy – using budget bills to reverse reforms and staging hearings to discredit diplomacy – they are heading in a direction where it is increasingly easy to disregard what they say.

We are not talking about political stunts at the margin, like when the New Jersey Legislature expressed “Profound Disagreement” with the President’s breakthrough, or Senator Lindsey Graham promised to block funds for an embassy that is already standing. Those acts play at the margins.

What we are talking about is hardliners like Senator Marco Rubio, whose response to the Cuba “thaw” has left a trail of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Like, for example, when he sent a letter to President Obama in early January demanding that diplomatic talks in Havana be canceled because he believed that Cuba wasn’t following through on the promise to free 53 political prisoners. Then, a couple days later, Cuba released the dissidents.

Or when, citing human rights concerns, he said he would block the appointment of an ambassador to Cuba, even though he had recently voted to confirm the U.S. ambassador to China.

Or that time he questioned the legality of the President using his regulatory authority to loosen restrictions on travel and transactions in Cuba, even though President Bush had used his presidential powers to tighten restrictions on travel.

And it’s not just Senator Rubio – each time the hardliners criticize the President for changing the policy, they assert that he’s been snookered by the Castros when it comes to human rights. Yet, on Friday morning when Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson met with dissidents in Havana after wrapping up her meetings with counterparts from the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Berta Soler, who’s been lionized in the United States by the hardliners, didn’t even attend. Why wouldn’t she demonstrate the respect of attending a meeting with the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Cuba in 38 years? Because she didn’t approve of the other activists who had been invited.

Our country has spent six decades fighting and refighting the Cold War in Cuba. The President made a courageous decision to protect the national interest – to do right by the Cuban people and the American people – by changing direction. This is understandably destabilizing to people – in the heart of the diaspora community, and among political dissidents in Cuba – who became invested decades ago in seeing things only one way.

Not everyone agrees with what President Obama has done. Many of those who don’t are trying to find their voice in a very demanding time. And the others? There is a saying around Washington that the only thing worse than being wrong is being irrelevant. It’s a calamity when you’re both.

Cuba Central, January 23, 2015

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