Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cuba

The Backlash to Obama’s Cuban Thaw Begins

Talk to any Beltway insider and they’ll tell you that President Barack Obama’s administration is on the right side of history in its quest to implement a thaw in relations with communist Cuba. What’s more, they’ll provide the poll numbers that support this assertion. Despite the fact that this island prison nation remains an anachronistic Soviet vassal that continues to harbor fugitives from American justice, Gallup polling since 1999 has shown the public favors establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Nationally, it’s true that Americans of all political persuasions no longer see the value in maintaining a Cold War posture toward the Cuban regime. In the electorally crucial state of Florida, however, the story is dramatically different. Read More

Talk to any Beltway insider and they’ll tell you that President Barack Obama’s administration is on the right side of history in its quest to implement a thaw in relations with communist Cuba. What’s more, they’ll provide the poll numbers that support this assertion. Despite the fact that this island prison nation remains an anachronistic Soviet vassal that continues to harbor fugitives from American justice, Gallup polling since 1999 has shown the public favors establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Nationally, it’s true that Americans of all political persuasions no longer see the value in maintaining a Cold War posture toward the Cuban regime. In the electorally crucial state of Florida, however, the story is dramatically different.

Initially, the Cuban-American community in Florida appeared inclined to be split on the issue of opening bilateral relations with Cuba. In fact, Cuban-Americans were initially hostile toward Obama’s proposal. In December of 2014, 48 percent of Cuban-Americans polled by Bendixen & Amandi International disapproved of opening relations with Havana while 44 percent approved. By March, however, a narrow majority of Cuban-Americans polled by the same firm had warmed to the notion of a thaw with Cuba. Public pollsters testing the same issue noted that younger Cuban-Americans regarded Washington’s hostility toward Havana as a vestigial relic of a bygone era. The future, Obama’s supporters contended, belonged to them.

But there were indications that the Cuban-American community is still not monolithically enthralled by the project of normalization. “Only one-quarter of Cuban-Americans said they had plans to visit Cuba,” National Journal reported when parsing Bendixen & Amandi International’s March survey. “Almost three-quarters said they wouldn’t be interested in investing in Cuba should it become legal to do so, many citing mistrust of Havana or willful boycott of the Castro brothers.”

“Respondents living in Florida, where the Cuban-American population is concentrated, were less willing to endorse the policy shift, with only 41 percent agreeing with the White House,” that report continued. “That’s in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where Cuban-Americans agreed 3-to-1 that the United States and Cuba should share closer ties.”

This sentiment was observable in the behavior of Florida’s legislature, which expressed strong reservations about the prospect of normalizing relations with Cuba. In April, Florida’s House and Senate adopted identical resolutions opposing the normalization of relations with Cuba and the opening of any Cuban diplomatic office in that state. Again, the Florida legislature seemed to observers in Washington to be behind the times. The state’s residents approved of the opening of relations with Cuba, after all, and the Sunshine State’s business community had long been cultivating relationships with their Cuban counterparts.

But politicians closest to a given issue do occasionally have their finger on the pulse; at least, better than do those in the pundit class. The latest canary in the mine to pass on to oblivion amid spastic, gasping contortions is impossible to ignore. This week, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a stinging rebuke of the president’s Cuba policy.

“I believe a relationship with the United States should be earned,” Wasserman Schultz told reporters with The Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal. “[P]erhaps we should make sure that some of these human rights concessions are secured prior to moving forward.”

She added, however, that she believed Obama’s approach to bilateral relations with Cuba could, in the long run, benefit the Cuban people by providing the United States with more negotiating leverage. It might also create a more advantageous position for America to advocate for a liberalization of Cuba’s human rights policies.

“Anytime we’re at the negotiating table with any nation like Cuba that has as horrendous a human rights record as they do, it’s an opportunity to be able to assert our view that making sure that any nation in the world should have freedom of their elections, that people should have the right to elect a person of their choice, that they should be able to speak freely, even if it is against the actions of their government and not be subject to arrest, that they should be able to make sure they can move freely throughout their country,” she said. “So President Obama’s policy allows us to be able to press those priorities at the negotiating table.”

Republicans like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has made opposition to normalization of relations with Cuba the centerpiece of their Sunshine State strategy, might not be waging so quixotic a fight after all. Rubio, who called Obama’s series of “one-sided concessions” toward Cuba a display of “weakness” that the Castro brothers would undoubtedly exploit, can now claim that his apprehension toward normalization is a sensible, bipartisan approach. Even if Rubio fails to secure the GOP’s presidential nomination, Republican opposition to rewarding Cuba for bad behavior doesn’t seem to be the obvious electoral loser that many in the commentary class assumed it was.

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Update the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

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At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

And it is doubtful that Obama will seek to stigmatize Sudan, Darfur and Sudan’s increasing support for the Lord’s Resistance Army notwithstanding. Syria’s another call—but Obama seems to be pivoting to reconciling with Bashar al-Assad despite the brutality of the last four years. With both Khartoum and Damascus, Obama might also argue that whatever the brutality of the regimes, they have focused their repression inward and have not engaged in international terrorism. To reach such a conclusion would, of course, require cherry-picking Sudanese assistance with weapons transfers to Palestinian terrorists and Syrian-sponsored violence inside Lebanon.

Clearly, Obama is treating the State Sponsor of Terrorism list subjectively rather than objectively. To be fair, George W. Bush did likewise: The only reason why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed North Korea from the list in 2008 was to try to jumpstart diplomacy in the hope that she could provide Bush with a foreign-policy success. North Korea was no more deserving of removal than Iran would be: While Bush administration officials insisted that Pyongyang had ceased its support for terror in the 1980s, the Congressional Research Service was reporting continued ties between North Korea on one hand, and both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah on the other.

In an ideal world, there would be no state sponsors of terror, but simply waving the diplomatic wand to remove states from the list does not end terror. Indeed, the whole purpose of designation is not to hamper diplomacy but to aid it: When states are listed on objective grounds, it provides diplomatic leverage to get them to reform.

Perhaps, then, it would be useful for the State Department not only to review those states on the list like Cuba and Iran which Obama wants removed, but also other states or entities whose recent behavior suggests they deserve inclusion.

Turkey is a clear example. There is ample evidence that Turkey has smuggled arms to Boko Haram, and there is also conclusive evidence that Turkey has also armed radical groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates and perhaps even ISIS in Syria.

Both Turkey and Qatar also overtly support Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be diplomatically inconvenient to designate two U.S. allies but, then again, it should be even more inconvenient to have allies who are unrepentant sponsors of terrorist groups.

By any objective measure, Russia should also be considered a state sponsor of terrorism: Whether it is providing arms used to shoot down civilian jets, or simply providing arms to militias which indiscriminately shell civilian targets, it is clear that Russia does not abide by the rule of law.

And, of course, if the Palestinian Authority wishes to be treated as a state, one membership they deserve is designation as a terror sponsor. Despite the Oslo Accords and subsequent interim agreements, the Palestinian Authority simply has not kept its hand clean: offering salaries to convicted terrorists—men and women who fully acknowledge their role in attacks targeting civilians—is evidence enough.

While Cuba remains an autocratic, corrupt regime, it is debatable whether they still are an international terror sponsor. What is not debatable, however, is that Venezuela is. And, so long as Algeria continues to aid and support the Polisario Front almost 25 years after that Cold War relic agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco, then Algeria too deserves to be listed as a terror sponsor. Pakistan, too, for all its assistance to the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups. And North Korea’s brief interlude off the list should end so long as it continues its relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, for whom it apparently still digs tunnels and builds other underground facilities.

Let’s hope that one day there will be no need for a State Sponsor of Terrorism list. But let’s also acknowledge that that day has yet to come. Alas, a true State Sponsor of Terrorism list would not include just two or three countries, but perhaps a dozen. Diplomatic sleights-of-hand might be the bread and butter of the Obama administration and State Department more broadly, but pretending terrorism has no sponsors does not actually do anything to stop terrorism. Quite the contrary, it just convinces terror sponsors in Algiers, Ankara, Caracas, Doha, Islamabad, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Ramallah that they face no accountability for their actions.

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Marco Rubio Finds His Voice

While the Iowa Freedom Summit got most of the attention over the weekend, three potential Republican presidential candidates—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz—engaged in a preview of the 2016 GOP foreign-policy debate at a forum in California. Both Cruz and Rubio are the sons of Cuban immigrants, and when the debate turned to the recent Obama administration decision to normalize relations with the island prison, Paul learned the hard way that ideological principles, if paired only with theoretical knowledge, struggle when challenged by personal experience.

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While the Iowa Freedom Summit got most of the attention over the weekend, three potential Republican presidential candidates—Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz—engaged in a preview of the 2016 GOP foreign-policy debate at a forum in California. Both Cruz and Rubio are the sons of Cuban immigrants, and when the debate turned to the recent Obama administration decision to normalize relations with the island prison, Paul learned the hard way that ideological principles, if paired only with theoretical knowledge, struggle when challenged by personal experience.

Foreign policy rarely plays too much of a role in general elections, though since 9/11 it has probably had a more sustained impact on voters, since the country was at war. But whatever its effect on the 2016 general election, it will likely be an important part of the conversation in the battle for the GOP nomination, due in large part to the presence of Rand Paul. The senator advocates a “conservative realism” (though I’ve pointed out in the past why it’s really more of a utopian realism) and thus gives voice to conservative critics of the party’s interventionist status quo. And if Rubio runs—and indications are that he’s leaning toward a run—the GOP will have its most eloquent spokesman for a robust American presence in the world in decades. Add in Cruz’s legendary debating skills, and the three-man forum over the weekend provides a glimpse of the battles yet to come.

According to The Hill, Rubio pressed his advantage on foreign affairs:

In making his case, Rubio argued the next Republican nominee needs to be a foreign policy expert with a “global strategic vision” who understands the “seriousness, breadth, and scope of the challenges we face” internationally.

Taking an apparent swipe at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who electrified conservatives over the weekend at the Iowa Freedom Summit, Rubio also said the GOP nominee shouldn’t necessarily come from the party’s stable of conservative governors.

“Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said. Walker is planning a trip to Israel soon in a move meant to bolster his foreign policy credentials.

Governors tend to have a certain advantage over senators, in that they usually have a clear record. This is especially true during times of divided government, and for much of his time as Senate majority leader Harry Reid made it a Democratic priority to grind the Congress to a halt, not even passing basic legislation like budgets. But the other side of that coin is foreign policy: governors don’t usually have much experience there, while senators—if they’re on the right committees—do. And Rubio does.

But the Cuba debate reveals the other advantage Rubio and Cruz have. Namely, the kind of granular and personal understanding of an issue that even a few years on a foreign affairs committee won’t get you. That benefit, of course, has its limits. Personal experience can help a candidate craft a more compelling message, but there is no such thing as a true trump card in such debates. On Cuba, Paul also has one advantage: the polling is on his side. Americans appear ready for a policy shift there. Rubio and Cruz will be arguing passionately and intelligently, but they’ll begin by spotting Paul a few points here.

That, however, could change. One interesting aspect of the polling on Cuba is that President Obama’s policy has received higher marks than his handling of the issue, which suggests that there is still plenty of room to argue about how poorly Obama negotiated this deal. Today’s report from the Associated Press also demonstrates why even the approval numbers of the policy itself could slide back in the other direction if it continues to be mishandled:

Following the highest-level open talks in three decades between the two nations, Cuban officials remained firm in rejecting significant reforms pushed by the United States as part of President Barack Obama’s surprise move to re-establish ties and rebuild economic relations with the Communist-led country.

“One can’t think that in order to improve and normalize relations with the U.S., Cuba has to give up the principles it believes in,” Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, told The Associated Press after the end of the talks. “Changes in Cuba aren’t negotiable.”

Paul will be watching this carefully. His one major disadvantage on the Cuba issue is that he is reliant on the Obama administration’s handling of negotiations. The president’s bumbling foreign policy could easily lead to Paul being saddled by a flailing Cuba policy that Paul might have handled better. (It’s inconceivable that, for all his faults, Paul could possibly be a worse negotiator than Obama.)

And Cuba’s not the only such issue. On Iran, unsurprisingly, both Rubio and Cruz took a harder line, saying all options should be on the table while Paul was reduced to straw-man arguments about negotiations. Here, too, his fate for now is in the president’s hands. Fair or not, Obama’s thus-far disastrous Iran policy, which hasn’t stopped its march toward nuclear capability while also enabled it to expand its influence across the Middle East, is what voters will associate with talk of engagement that isn’t backed up by a credible threat of force or additional sanctions.

Obama’s name might not be on the ballot, but thanks to his handling of foreign affairs, his policies will be—not just in the general election, but in both parties’ nominating contests as well.

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Cuba’s Backtracking Is the Rule, Not the Exception

The logic behind President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that it is easier to address problems between countries ranging from terrorism to human-rights violations when governments talk directly and countries maintain normal relations. That claim is already in doubt given Cuba’s apparent backsliding on its reported commitment to release 53 prisoners. If Cuban President Raúl Castro calculated that once the United States began a diplomatic process, it would be loath to end it and forfeit promised trade just because Cuba had backtracked on its commitments, he would be right.

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The logic behind President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that it is easier to address problems between countries ranging from terrorism to human-rights violations when governments talk directly and countries maintain normal relations. That claim is already in doubt given Cuba’s apparent backsliding on its reported commitment to release 53 prisoners. If Cuban President Raúl Castro calculated that once the United States began a diplomatic process, it would be loath to end it and forfeit promised trade just because Cuba had backtracked on its commitments, he would be right.

Jonathan Tobin is correct to observe that totalitarianism trumps capitalist engagement. The simple fact is that “critical engagement”—diplomacy geared to bring rogues in from the cold and simultaneously address tough issues they are reticent to address—has seldom if ever worked. Former German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel first conceptualized critical engagement in the context of Iran. On May 18, 1992, he became German foreign minister, trumpeting human rights as his top priority. At the same time, the German government sought to expand trade with the Islamic Republic. While the U.S. government promoted a policy of “Dual Containment,” European governments argued that Iran was simply too important to isolate.

On December 12, 1992, the European Union endorsed Berlin’s proposed “critical dialogue,” in which greater European trade with Iran would be correlated toward Iranian improvements on human rights and Tehran’s greater conformity with international norms of behavior. The European Council declared, “The European Council reaffirms its belief that a dialogue should be maintained with the Iranian Government. This should be a critical dialogue which reflects concern about Iranian behavior and calls for improvement in a number of areas, particularly human rights, the death sentence pronounced by a Fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini against the author Salman Rushdie, which is contrary to international law, and terrorism.” The Council continued, “Improvement in these areas will be important in determining the extent to which closer relations and confidence can be developed.” Weapons of mass destruction received subsequent mention. European officials assumed that increasing trade, meanwhile, would strengthen the hands of pragmatists against more hardline elements.

European officials saw the designation of “critical” as important because it emphasized that the engagement would tackle contentious issues. Iranian officials appear never to have taken the new approach to heart. Over subsequent years, Iranian authorities arrested German citizens in Iran, more often as bargaining chips to influence negotiations than on any evidence-based charges. Initially, Kinkel and his cohorts continued to pay lip service to human rights, but as Iranian diplomats signaled Tehran’s annoyance and suggested further queries could impact commercial ties, Kinkel backed off. By 1995, German exports to Iran had increased to $1.4 billion, more than twice the level of any other country.

Meanwhile, European Commissioner Hans van der Broek met Rushdie to assure him that Iranian respect for human rights, the lifting of the fatwa, and greater respect inside Iran for international law would be preconditions for the establishment of closer EU-Iran ties. They weren’t. The EU-Iran rapprochement continued, even without progress on Rushdie’s case. The following year, the EU sought again to have the fatwa lifted but failed to win written Iranian assurances and, in 1995, Iranian Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi reiterated that Tehran would not lift the call for Rushdie’s murder.

European trade meanwhile flourished. By 1996, economic and trade relations between the European Union and the Islamic Republic reached $29 billion. With trade in the balance, European leaders dropped any pretense of demanding improvement on critical issues. When, amidst low oil prices, the German government had the opportunity to utilize its economic leverage to force concessions on issues of concern, the German government and German banks declined and instead agreed to reschedule Iran’s debt. European governments followed suit, rescheduling $12 billion in credit.

While Iranian President Mohammad Khatami entered office in 1997, executions increased alongside trade. Rushdie remained under constant threat: even after Iranian diplomats promised to waive the execution order so as to enable the British government to return their ambassador, the Iranian regime simply re-imposed the death sentence the following day. Iran’s military nuclear program continued apace. Indeed, reformists brag that they deserve credit for the nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the European and subsequent Clinton administration initiatives.

The same held true with Clinton-era American diplomacy toward the Taliban. Once diplomats began their initiative, no matter how much the Taliban reneged on agreements and promises, there was no reversing the process–that is, until nearly 3,000 American lost their lives. And the idea that money can buy responsibility has been behind the logic of aid to the Palestinian Authority and Gaza Strip. But even with the Palestinians receiving more per capita than any other people on earth, radicalism and terrorism has only increased.

Critical engagement—and the belief it never hurts to talk to enemies—has been a diplomatic mantra for decades. But such diplomacy has never reformed an adversary’s behavior; it has simply let them off the hook. Rogues know talk of human rights is simply the West posturing to its own domestic audience. Until Washington or other Western countries show a real willingness to walk away from the table and re-impose and augment sanctions when a country backtracks from its commitments, rogues will calculate correctly they can get away with murder, and get paid for it.

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Can Christie Find His Foreign Policy Voice?

He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

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He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

The local angle on the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba was the failure of the administration to obtain the return of a fugitive from justice in New Jersey. Joanne Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was involved in a campaign of robberies and attacks on law enforcement officials culminating in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that left a state trooper dead, the crime for which she was sentenced to life in prison. But her criminal colleagues helped her escape prison in 1979 after which she found her way to Cuba where she lives to this day under the name of Assata Shakur. Though some African-American politicians have opposed efforts to extradite her on the grounds that they believe she was the victim of racially motivated persecution, there’s little doubt about her guilt. In the past, there were reports that the Clinton administration had offered to lift the embargo on Cuba in exchange for the return of Chesimard and 90 other U.S. criminals given safe haven there. Thus, it was disappointing that the Obama administration made no apparent effort to tie her return to the major economic and political concessions the U.S. gave the Castro regime as part of a prisoner exchange. That is especially unfortunate since it was only last year that the FBI formally added her name to its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

Thus, it was both appropriate and timely for the governor to speak up on the issue in a letter sent to the White House in which he rightly said Chesimard’s continued freedom is “an affront” to the citizens of New Jersey and that she must be returned to serve her sentence before any further consideration is given to resuming relations with Havana. But, to his credit, Christie did not stop with that justified yet parochial concern. He went on to say the following:

I do not share your view that restoring diplomatic relations without a clear commitment from the Cuban government of the steps they will take to reverse decades of human rights violations will result in a better and more just Cuba for its people.

In doing so, Christie clearly aligned himself with Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives who have spoken up against the Cuban deal on the grounds that it will make it less rather than more likely that conditions in the communist island prison will improve as a result of Obama’s decision. It also places Christie in opposition to Senator Rand Paul, who has defended Obama’s opening.

It’s not the first time Christie has been on the other side of an issue from Paul. In the summer of 2013, the governor spoke up and criticized Paul’s effort to force an American retreat from the battle against Islamist terrorists. But that initiative was short lived and, given Christie’s unwillingness to follow up with more details that would demonstrate his command of the issues, seemed to indicate that he wasn’t ready for prime time on foreign policy. That impression was confirmed in the time since then as the governor has often refrained from commenting on foreign policy.

But if he wants to be president, Christie must be able to demonstrate a clear view about America’s place in the world. In the White House, his main antagonists won’t be union bosses or even members of the other party in Congress but rogue nations like Russia, Iran and North Korean. If he is preparing a run for the presidency, the governor must continue to speak out and do so in a consistent and forceful manner. That’s especially true if he aspires, as he seemed to for a while last year, to be the mainstream alternative to Paul’s isolationism. If not, despite his ability to raise money and gain some establishment support, it won’t be possible to take him all that seriously as a candidate or a prospective president.

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Rubio-Paul Debate Bigger Than Just Cuba

Few would have ever expected that relations with Cuba, of all places, would be the focus of a serious foreign policy debate within the Republican Party. But President Obama’s decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the Castro regime along with other economic benefits as part of a prisoner exchange has highlighted the rift between the libertarian faction led by Senator Rand Paul, a likely presidential candidate, and mainstream GOP and conservative opinion as few other issues have done before. While the argument about opening up to Cuba is an interesting one, the sniping between Paul and Senator Marco Rubio, another potential 2016 challenger who has emerged as his party’s leading spokesman on the issue is about more than Cuba. The question facing Republicans is not so much whether they want to end sanctions on the Communist-controlled island prison as it is whether they want to go to the people in 2016 supporting a foreign policy that bears an eerie resemblance to that of President Obama or one based on strength and assertion of American interests that their party has traditionally espoused.

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Few would have ever expected that relations with Cuba, of all places, would be the focus of a serious foreign policy debate within the Republican Party. But President Obama’s decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the Castro regime along with other economic benefits as part of a prisoner exchange has highlighted the rift between the libertarian faction led by Senator Rand Paul, a likely presidential candidate, and mainstream GOP and conservative opinion as few other issues have done before. While the argument about opening up to Cuba is an interesting one, the sniping between Paul and Senator Marco Rubio, another potential 2016 challenger who has emerged as his party’s leading spokesman on the issue is about more than Cuba. The question facing Republicans is not so much whether they want to end sanctions on the Communist-controlled island prison as it is whether they want to go to the people in 2016 supporting a foreign policy that bears an eerie resemblance to that of President Obama or one based on strength and assertion of American interests that their party has traditionally espoused.

Though Paul shot to national prominence and earned tremendous applause from the conservative base last year with his filibuster attacking President Obama’s drone policies, that fracas served to paper over the fact that on many foreign policy issues, the Kentucky senator is far closer to the positions of the White House than he is to most other members of the GOP caucus. In unraveling the back-and-forth between Paul and Rubio over the past few days as each has taken pot shots at the other over Cuba, it’s important to understand that the libertarian and the president share the same basic premises about American foreign policy.

Paul likes to call himself a foreign policy “realist” cut from the mold of the first President Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker. But while there are some superficial similarities between his positions and those of the old-school realists, his real affinity is with the current administration.

In defending the president’s move on Cuba, the key word repeatedly used by Paul was “engagement.” He puts it forward in a context of free trade using language that conservatives are more comfortable with than those employed by Obama. Though he has attempted to turn the truth on its head by calling Rubio an “isolationist” because of his support for continued sanctions on the Cuban regime, the point here is that Paul shares the president’s belief that reaching out and making nice and trading with enemies should be the default position for American foreign policy. Indeed, Paul’s blind belief that some trade with Cuba might topple the Castros or change the regime is remarkably similar to that of President Obama. Neither appears to realize that giving away a major bargaining chip to a despotic regime while asking for and getting nothing in term of human rights or democracy is not only a bad bargain but also an open advertisement for U.S. weakness.

For a party that believes in the market economy, the notion that the U.S. should trade with everyone, even foes, has a certain attraction. As George Will famously wrote back in an earlier era when American big business was doing its best to prop up a failing Soviet empire, some capitalists “love commerce more than they loathe communism.”

But as Rubio has rightly pointed out, opening up trade to former enemies such as China and Vietnam may have had its uses and many have profited from it, but the net effect of these policies has to been to ensure that tyrannical governments stay in power. If the point of American foreign policy is to advance the interests of the United States and to promote freedom in places where it is brutally suppressed, Paul’s prescription for the future is one that regimes like that in Iran as well as Cuba will be very comfortable with.

Both Paul and Obama are primarily concerned in America retreating from the world stage. While they have a strong point about some on the right ignoring the danger of getting involved in wars, they consistently fail to realize that the costs of their desire to retrench — the real isolationism — is paid by those who fall under the control of terrorist groups like ISIS. The rise of that menace is directly attributable to the president’s precipitous retreat from Iraq and refusal to take action in Syria in accordance, policies that were completely in accord with Paul’s worldview.

It is true that Senator Paul has sought to distance himself somewhat from the positions of his father. Former Rep. Ron Paul’s foreign policy was based on a view of America as a malevolent force throughout the world illustrating how the far right and far left are often indistinguishable. Rand is not as openly hostile to Israel though he would cut off all aid to it and retreat from the Middle East in a fashion that would render it even more vulnerable.

Just as in 2013 when the issue wasn’t so much about drones as it was Paul’s lack of comfort with the U.S. fighting a war to defeat Islamist terrorists, the talk about Cuba is based on a frame of references that sees enemies as merely trading partners. Though Paul doesn’t share Obama’s crush on the United Nations or the glories of multilateral diplomacy, the net effect of his position would be the same as that of Obama’s policies: a weaker United States and a retreat from a position in which America championed democracy while relentlessly opposing Islamist terror.

In a period of peace in which groups like ISIS were not rightly perceived as a threat to American security and interests, it might be possible for Rand Paul to win the Republican presidential nomination with an Obama-style foreign policy. Though it is far from clear whether Rubio will run, either he or one of the other presidential contenders who share his views will have a big advantage over Paul when it comes to foreign policy.

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Obama’s Still In Charge But Also Still Failing

President Obama used the opening statement for his end of year press conference to boast of his achievements even if many of the questions revolved around his lackluster response to the North Korean cyber terror attack on Sony. But the main theme of most of the coverage of the president today centered on the theme that he has responded to his party’s landslide defeat in the midterm elections by seeking to revive his presidency with unilateral actions. These initiatives, such as his opening to Cuba and executive orders on immigration show he’s still in charge and capable of using his power and establishing his legacy despite the opposition of Congress and even the majority of Americans. But while the mainstream media is applauding the signs of life out of White House that appeared dead in the water last month, this recent surge of activity should not be mistaken for policy success. Though any president has the ability to act whenever he wants, the same failures that have dogged him during his first six years in office haven’t disappeared.

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President Obama used the opening statement for his end of year press conference to boast of his achievements even if many of the questions revolved around his lackluster response to the North Korean cyber terror attack on Sony. But the main theme of most of the coverage of the president today centered on the theme that he has responded to his party’s landslide defeat in the midterm elections by seeking to revive his presidency with unilateral actions. These initiatives, such as his opening to Cuba and executive orders on immigration show he’s still in charge and capable of using his power and establishing his legacy despite the opposition of Congress and even the majority of Americans. But while the mainstream media is applauding the signs of life out of White House that appeared dead in the water last month, this recent surge of activity should not be mistaken for policy success. Though any president has the ability to act whenever he wants, the same failures that have dogged him during his first six years in office haven’t disappeared.

There’s no doubt that those who were completely writing off the president’s ability to influence events after the beating Democrats took were exaggerating. Though his policies, which he said were on the ballot, were repudiated, Congress in the hands of Republicans and his personal favorability ratings continuing to head south, the president remains the most powerful man in the world. With the vast power of the federal government at his disposal and no limits on his ability to act, save those specifically charted out by the Constitution and Congress, any president can dominate any news cycle or make a wide variety of decisions that can not easily be reversed by either the legislature or the judiciary.

Moreover, unlike some of his predecessors, Obama’s personality is such that he views checks on his actions, whether in the form of Congressional action or the verdict of the ballot box, as challenges to be met rather than judgments that must be respected. Just as this is a top-down administration in which the Cabinet acts as a body of sycophants and middlemen rather than advisors, this is not a president who listens to advice or criticism that doesn’t conform to his original ideas. It should therefore come as no surprise that now that he is faced with a Congress controlled by his opponents, Obama should come to the conclusion that Constitutional boundaries should be ignored in his zeal to do, as he likes.

But his ability to act on his own should not be mistaken for actual policy successes.

On immigration, the president has finally done what some of his supporters wanted in terms of granting amnesty to more than 5 million illegal aliens and there is very little that is effective that his critics can do about it.

On Cuba, the new Congress can block funding for a new embassy in Havana, refuse to lift the embargo or confirm a new ambassador. But much of the new opening to the despotic regime will go one no matter what Congress says.

Looking ahead to other possible presidential actions, if he makes enough concessions and the Iranians are feeling generous, Obama may get a nuclear deal with the Islamist state. That, too, will be interpreted as a sign of life in what would otherwise be considered a lame duck presidency.

But none of this will change the fact that Obama’s ideological fixation with outreach to tyrants has not made the world better or increased America’s security or influence. To the contrary, with ISIS on the rise in the Middle East, Iran successfully challenging for regional hegemony via its successes in Syria, its alliance with Hamas and its intimidation of moderate Arab nations, and likely to gain U.S. acquiescence to it becoming a nuclear threshold state, Obama is leaving the world a more dangerous place than when he entered the White House. Nor will his Cuban gambit make the island a more democratic or free place.

On domestic policy, his admirers cite his immigration executive orders as a sign that he can govern despite the opposition of Congress. But by acting in this extralegal fashion, Obama has actually doomed for the foreseeable future any chance of working out a compromise with Republicans to pass some kind of immigration reform. Flexing his muscles in this fashion and showing his contempt for the law has convinced even many moderate Republicans that he can’t be trusted to enforce any legislation that he doesn’t like or benefit from. Nor will the problems that he postponed in the implementation of ObamaCare but which will begin to be felt in 2015 do much to bolster confidence in his judgment or the wisdom of his efforts.

So while the last month has been full of presidential sound and fury, these actions only mask a deeper malaise that won’t be fixed by Obama’s characteristic hubris about his actions. The failures of his first six years still hang over this presidency and are why he remains deeply unpopular. He will retain the ability to impact the country until the moment his successor takes the oath of office. But no one should mistake this flurry of activity for presidential success. As the months wind down in what he termed today the fourth quarter of his time in the White House, Obama will be relevant but his failures will continue to haunt the nation and cloud his legacy.

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Castros Ensure That Rubio Isn’t Gambling

Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

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Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

The conceit of the piece is pretty much a repetition of President Obama’s talking points about his reasons for granting the Communist regime diplomatic recognition and other economic benefits. The old policies that revolve around isolating Cuba and forcing it to change have failed. The only hope for improving life there is to embrace the regime and to stop treating it as a pariah. The assumption is not only that Cuba will change enough to justify the move. It’s also based on the idea that most Americans want no part of what is seen as a vestige of cold war rivalries.

That’s certainly true of the core readership of the Times but, as has also been repeated endlessly in the last few days, younger Cuban-Americans are no longer as wedded to hostility to the Castro regime as their parents and grandparents. The point the president and his media cheering section is trying to make is that Rubio’s hawkish position is not only outdated but that it also doesn’t have much of a constituency even in the Republican Party, as evidence by the silence of some leading Republicans on the issue such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the applause for Obama’s move on the part of libertarians like Senator Rand Paul.

Liberals think that although Rubio is getting a lot of attention by staking out a “hard-line” position on Cuba, the Florida senator is actually making it clear that his views are outdated and about to be eclipsed by events that will soon lead to normal relations with Havana. In this manner, they think he will alienate his core Cuban constituency that will enjoy and exploit the new reality as well as a business community that is always willing to exploit any new markets in search of profits.

But the problem with all these assumptions is that there is very little sign that Cuba will evolve in the direction President Obama thinks it will or that Cuban-Americans or Republican voters will reject Rubio’s message.

First of all, the objective of the Cuban regime is not to prepare the way for a transition to democracy or even to open up its economy to foreign investors. Raul Castro does want some infusion of Western cash to keep his failed state afloat now that the Soviet Union is dead and Venezuela is bankrupt. But he isn’t any more interested in the post-Cold War model of China than he is that of Russia.

As Walter Russell Mead, a supporter of the deal with Cuba, noted earlier this week in the American Interest, the regime is well aware that a Republican Congress will never lift the embargo on their country. That’s fine with the Castros, who want to keep strict limits on the influx of foreign business and investment. Unlike Russia, which scrapped both its political and economic systems and China, which embraced capitalism for its economy while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, the Cuban leaders want to keep both their tyranny and their bankrupt socialist system. All they want from the United States is just enough investment to keep them going without actually generating any sort of reform.

Rubio’s position is no gamble because the Castro brothers have no intention of letting Cuba become Russia or China. They want, and with the help of President Obama, may well get, a third option that enables them to preserve their regime and do nothing to advance the standard of living in Cuba.

What Rubio has done is to draw attention to the fact that in exchange for giving something of great value to a brutal and dictatorial regime, President Obama has gotten nothing in return. The president’s blind ideological faith in engagement with foes of the United States has been demonstrated time and again with nations like Russia and Iran. But considering how little he has gained for these appeasement campaigns, the notion that history will judge Obama kindly for these moves is more of a leap of liberal faith than a sober assessment of reality.

Far from a gamble, Rubio’s bold stand presents no risk at all for him. The chances that the regime in Havana will allow anything that could be mistaken for liberal reform are virtually non-existent. Nor is it likely that the base of the Republican Party, which feels such disgust at the president’s weakness and willingness to sell out American values in order to gain a meaningless diplomatic triumph, will punish Rubio for pointing this out.

It remains to be seen whether this issue will be enough to propel Rubio into a viable 2016 presidential bid. But it does solidify his reputation as one of the leading spokesmen, if not the most important spokesman for his party on foreign-policy issues. With Americans rightly re-focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and worries about a nuclear Iran being exacerbated by Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal at any cost, the president’s Cuban gambit not only helps keep foreign policy a major issue for 2016 but also highlights Rubio’s greatest strength and one on which he is far closer to the views of most Republicans than someone like Paul.

But whether or not he runs for president, the facts on the ground in Cuba are bound to make Rubio look smart. Just as President Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney for embracing the politics of the 1980s on Russia now looks pretty embarrassing, it’s likely that the same will be said of those who think Rubio is on the wrong side of history on Cuba.

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A Bad Day at the Office for Nicolas Maduro

If you want evidence that the Cuban regime is the real master of Venezuela’s murky and corrupt politics, look no further than the statement issued by the beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, in response to the coming normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties announced yesterday.

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If you want evidence that the Cuban regime is the real master of Venezuela’s murky and corrupt politics, look no further than the statement issued by the beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, in response to the coming normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties announced yesterday.

“I am very happy,” Maduro gushed, according to a report from the regime’s English-language mouthpiece, Venezuelanalysis. “We must recognize the gesture of President Barack Obama, a brave and necessary gesture in history. He has taken a step, perhaps the most important one of his presidency.”

Given that as recently as March, Maduro was warning Obama that it “would be the worst mistake of your life to authorize the assassination of President Nicolas Maduro and fill Venezuela with violence,” this marks progress of sorts. In recent weeks, Maduro has even been cautiously flattering Obama, arguing that while the Eric Garner ruling demonstrates that racism in America has gotten worse under its first black president, “I respect Obama personally. But I think he’s a hostage of the real powers in the United States, and he decided not to fight. He’s tired, exhausted.”

It would, however, be a grave mistake to conclude that the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement will stabilize the chavista regime, whatever Maduro says. The Venezuelan president, who spent the years 1986 and 1987 receiving his political training at the sinisterly-named “School of Political Education” in Havana, has long been dismissed by the Venezuelan opposition as a Cuban agent controlled by the Castro brothers, and therefore forbidden from openly criticizing Cuba’s ruling Communists.

Were Maduro permitted to say what he’s really thinking, we would see a decidedly different reaction. For the last fifteen years, and with the active collusion of first Hugo Chavez, and then Maduro, Cuba has treated Venezuela as a colony. By supplying the Cubans with 100,000 barrels of oil per day, a subsidy worth on average around $7 billion annually, the chavistas rescued Fidel Castro from the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which meant that Cuba could no longer ship its sugar to the USSR at an inflated price.

Although the Venezuelans provided the Cubans with salvation economically, from the very beginning it was Havana that called the shots politically. In his biography of Chavez, Comandante, the journalist Rory Carroll recounted a conversation with a leading Chavez confidante identified only as “Andres.” “The old fox sniffed him right out,” Andres related, as he described the first meeting between Fidel and a starstruck Chavez. “He recognized Chavez’s potential straightaway. And his weaknesses.”

The oil arrangement was a clear win for the Cubans. As well as securing an oil supply without having to part with much-needed hard currency, the barter deal agreed with Caracas allowed the Cubans to send military and intelligence officers to Venezuela along with the doctors and nurses who arrived there in lieu of cash payments for the oil.

At the same time, though, Cuba’s control of Venezuela was never absolute. When Chavez was first diagnosed with the cancer he eventually succumbed to in a Cuban hospital in 2013, The Economist presciently observed that “Venezuela apart, nowhere would his departure from office be felt more strongly than in Cuba.” At that time, not only was the Venezuelan opposition finally getting its act together, but fissures within the regime were also becoming visible. The Cubans rightly feared that without Chavez, they would eventually have to look elsewhere for a lifeline.

Almost two years after Chavez’s death, the value of Venezuela to Cuba’s future has declined precipitously. Maduro now faces a real rival in the form of Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, who does not share his fealty to the Cubans and is closely tied to the generals and other military officers who make their money from narcotics trafficking. And there is a third faction too: the colectivos, chavista paramilitaries based in poor urban neighborhoods, are increasingly unhappy with Maduro, who can no longer sustain the social programs launched by Chavez that won him the votes he needed to stay in power.

The economic outlook for Venezuela is as uncertain as the political one. With 96 percent of its dollar earnings coming from oil exports, the dramatic tumble in oil prices has boosted speculation that Caracas will default on its foreign debt and exposed the country’s isolation within OPEC, where the Saudis and Kuwaitis have made it plain that they are content to live with low oil prices for a while longer. What this means in concrete terms is that Venezuela loses $700 million a year for each $1 per barrel drop in oil prices.

No wonder, then, that the Cubans are now looking elsewhere–and specifically to the United States–for political and economic support. And no wonder that Maduro looks like an emperor with no clothes: after all, the Cuban subsidy was a major factor behind the shortage of basic goods and the rampant inflation within Venezuela. Maduro has precious little to justify the relationship cemented by his predecessor, especially now that the country is at its lowest point since Chavez took power. Indeed, the Venezuelan president cannot even rely on the Cubans to provide him with rhetorical support, as he attempts to combat a congressional bill that denies visas to and freezes the assets of those Venezuelan officials behind the repression of pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year.

“It looks like Raul [Castro] is cheating on Nicolas!” joked Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles after learning of the U.S.-Cuba deal. The chavistas “were never allies of the Castros as Chavez tried to make us believe for too many years,” wrote the dissident blogger, Daniel Duquenal. “We were just a Castro colony, a pawn with an accidental wallet to pluck.” Those reactions are fairly typical of how Venezuelans perceive the new climate between the U.S. and Cuba, and how skeptical they are of Maduro’s claim that he is delighted by the warming of ties.

Yet even if Maduro’s days are numbered, that does not imply that Venezuela’s democratic future is assured. Prominent opposition figures like Leopoldo Lopez, Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos remain incarcerated in jail, and the regime is determined that Maria Corina Machado, another outspoken opposition figure, will share the same fate. Obama may have pulled Cuba back from the precipice, but, as always, the Venezuelans will be left to their own devices.

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On Cuba, Rubio Runs Rings Around Obama

The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

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The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

First, Rubio’s Cuban heritage–his parents fled the island–gives the senator’s objections an authenticity most others lack. This is personal for him. Second, it turns the subject back not only to foreign policy, on which Rubio is more fluent than virtually any other elected politician in the country right now, but also on a specific subject that is right in his wheelhouse. Rubio’s expertise means that while Obama is stumbling through statements filled with straw men and defensive and shallow rationalizations, Rubio can step up to the microphone with almost no notice and run circles around Obama.

Which he did. Here is the video of Rubio’s press conference after yesterday’s announcement. The confidence and the command of the issues are almost unfair to Obama: the president is just completely out of his league on this. He followed up with an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he points out that while there is a serious discussion to be had about the efficacy of America’s prevailing Cuba policy, that doesn’t justify what is obviously a naïve, poorly negotiated deal (an Obama specialty). Rubio writes:

The entire policy shift is based on the illusion—in fact, on the lie—that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. Cuba already enjoys access to commerce, money and goods from other nations, and yet the Cuban people are still not free. They are not free because the regime—just as it does with every aspect of life—manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island. More economic engagement with the U.S. means that the regime’s grip on power will be strengthened for decades to come—dashing the Cuban people’s hopes for freedom and democracy.

Of course, like all Americans, I am overjoyed for Alan Gross and his family after his release from captivity after five years. This American had been a hostage of the regime, and it was through his imprisonment that the Cuban regime again showed the world its cruel nature.

But the policy changes announced by President Obama will have far-reaching consequences for the American people. President Obama made it clear that if you take an American hostage and are willing to hold him long enough, you may not only get your own prisoners released from U.S. jails—as three Cuban spies were—you may actually win lasting policy concessions from the U.S. as well. This precedent places a new price on the head of every American, and it gives rogue leaders around the world more clear-cut evidence of this president’s naïveté and his willingness to abandon fundamental principles in a desperate attempt to burnish his legacy. There can be no doubt that the regime in Tehran is watching closely, and it will try to exploit President Obama’s naïveté as the Iranian leaders pursue concessions from the U.S. in their quest to establish themselves as a nuclear power.

Obama’s lack of knowledge about the world, and his refusal to take advice from anyone outside an inner circle that at this point could fit in a phone booth, is on full display in moments like this. And it also holds back his own side in these debates. As Rubio writes, there really is a debate to be had on U.S.-Cuba relations. But Obama is so clumsy and unknowledgeable that you wouldn’t know his side of this argument has merit. (It’s one reason why when Obama goes on speaking tours to promote a policy, that policy inevitably drops in popularity.)

Democrats need someone who understands foreign policy to step in at such times. Obama is just eroding whatever credibility they had.

Another reason Rubio benefits from this is that Obama needs Congress for some of the more significant parts of this policy shift. He needs the Senate, for example, to confirm an ambassador to Cuba. Rubio said he expects to be chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee next session. His message to the administration: “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’ll get an embassy funded.”

Republicans should not underestimate how much this helps Rubio maintain a high profile in opposition to Obama. The president has two years left, and for those two years Rubio will be the most important figure standing between Obama and a yet another of his capitulations to foreign dictators. Even if Rubio doesn’t run for president, he will establish his power base in the Senate and put himself in line to set the GOP’s congressional tone on foreign policy. And Democrats will simply have to produce a better foreign-policy mind than Obama’s if they’re going to compete with him.

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Yes, It’s Time to Lift the Cuban Embargo

Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

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Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

This is part of a broader effort by President Obama to reorder American diplomacy during the last two years of his presidency in keeping with his 2008 campaign pledge to talk to any dictator anytime without any preconditions. The centerpiece of his push is an effort to restore relations with Iran in return for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. That is a very bad idea because (a) Iran is certain to cheat on any such deal, (b) such a deal would not address Iran’s attempts to dominate the Middle East through the use of its terrorist proxies, and (c) such a deal would likely cause Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to launch their own nuclear weapons. More broadly, Iran is an expansionist power that threatens core American interests in a vital region of the world; it is also supporting the slaughter of more than 200,000 people in Syria. We should be trying to contain Iran rather than cuddling up to it.

Cuba is different. I recall going to Cuba a few years ago and finding a sad, decrepit relic state–a place where old American clunkers from the 1950s somehow stayed on the road, the buildings were falling down, and people lined up for hours to buy eggs. Its biggest ideological export these days seems to be doctors, not bombs. It’s hard to see this broken-down Communist has-been, ruled by a pair of geriatric brothers, as a major threat to American interests.

Once an exporter of revolution to Africa and Latin America, a trend made famous by Che Guevara, Cuba is now but a shadow of its old subversive self. It still remains a sponsor of terrorism but just barely. According to the State Department, Cuba remains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list because of its links to the Colombian FARC and ETA groups but those are largely beaten and not much of a threat anymore; indeed Cuba is now facilitating peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. Certainly the groups sponsored by Cuba are not remotely as dangerous as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Asaib Ahl ah-Haq, and other Iranian proxies.

Cuba also remains a notorious human rights violator but its record is not as bad as Iran and it’s cheering to see that as part of the deal to restore relations with the U.S. it is releasing 53 political prisoners, in addition to two Americans who are being swapped for three Cuban spies held in the U.S. Certainly Cuba’s human-rights record is no worse than Vietnam, another Communist state with which the U.S. restored diplomatic relations. Indeed over the years the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with many more noxious regimes including the Soviet Union–so why not Cuba?

The restoration of diplomatic relations will, in any case, deliver some benefits to the U.S. by allowing us to beef up the staff of the American interests section in Havana, thus increasing our ability to (at least in theory) subvert the regime through the promotion of human rights. Moreover the U.S. embargo on Cuba stays in effect, although President Obama is urging Congress to lift it.

After more than 50 years, it seems hard to argue that the embargo is doing much to undermine the rule of the Castro brothers. It’s time, at long last, to lift the embargo and see if it’s possible to do more to promote a post-Communist future for Cuba with openness than we have been able to accomplish with a standoffish attitude over the past half century.

This is one diplomatic initiative on Obama’s part that I can applaud. I just hope it will sate his appetite for diplomatic achievements before he makes ruinous concessions to the Iranians.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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Rubio Gives Harkin a Lesson in History

Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

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Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

A few moments ago, the body was treated to a report from the senator from Iowa about his recent trip to Cuba. Sounded like he had a wonderful trip visiting, what he described as, a real paradise. He bragged about a number of things that he learned on his trip to Cuba that I’d like to address briefly. He bragged about their health care system, medical school is free, doctors are free, clinics are free, their infant mortality rate may be even lower than ours. I wonder if the senator, however, was informed, number one, that the infant mortality rate of Cuba is completely calculated on figures provided by the Cuban government. And, by the way, totalitarian communist regimes don’t have the best history of accurately reporting things. I wonder if he was informed that before Castro, Cuba, by the way, was 13th in the whole world in infant mortality. I wonder if the government officials who hosted him, informed him that in Cuba there are instances reported, including by defectors, that if a child only lives a few hours after birth, they’re not counted as a person who ever lived and therefore don’t count against the mortality rate.

I wonder if our visitors to Cuba were informed that in Cuba, any time there is any sort of problem with the child in utero they are strongly encouraged to undergo abortions, and that’s why they have an abortion rate that skyrockets, and some say, is perhaps the highest the world. I heard him also talk about these great doctors that they have in Cuba. I have no doubt they’re very talented. I’ve met a bunch of them. You know where I met them? In the United States because they defected. Because in Cuba, doctors would rather drive a taxi cab or work in a hotel than be a doctor. I wonder if they spoke to him about the outbreak of cholera that they’ve been unable to control, or about the three-tiered system of health care that exists where foreigners and government officials get health care much better than that that’s available to the general population….

I heard about their wonderful literacy rate, how everyone in Cuba knows how to read. That’s fantastic. Here’s the problem: they can only read censored stuff. They’re not allowed access to the Internet. The only newspapers they’re allowed to read are Granma or the ones produced by the government.

Then he set his sights on Venezuela:

It is shameful that many members of Congress who traveled to Venezuela and were friendly with Chavez, some even went to his funeral, sit by saying nothing while this is happening in our own hemisphere. And this wonderful Cuban paradise government that we heard about? This is what they support. Just this morning, the dictator that calls himself a president — never been elected to anything, Raul Castro — announced he is there for whatever they need to help them do this. 

I listen to this stuff about Cuba and I listen to what’s happening in Venezuela, they’re very similar. Not just in the repression part, but the economics part. You know Venezuela’s an oil-rich country with hardworking people? They have a shortage — we don’t have an embargo against Venezuela. They have a shortage of toilet paper and tooth paste. Why? Because they are incompetent. Because communism doesn’t work. They look more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day. 

Rubio showed pictures of the victims of Venezuela’s government crackdown, humanized them, and put the Venezuelan authorities on notice he would soon be outlining sanctions and other responses the United States government can take, setting Venezuela alongside Iran, North Korea, and, yes, Cuba.

There’s something amazing about having this conversation in 2014. There is of course a full discussion to be had on the virtues and effects of embargoes and sanctions. But you can detect a note of disbelief at the opening of Rubio’s response, before the intensity sheds it. Are there still those in the United States Congress so easily fooled by totalitarian propaganda? Yes, there are, apparently.

And that’s an important point. We’re not talking about the Sean Penns of the world. We’re talking about a five-term U.S. senator. Hopefully Harkin learned something from Rubio’s speech, though I doubt it. I imagine, however, many Americans learned something about Tom Harkin.

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It’s Time to Close the Camps

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

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The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

The United States might have little leverage over China and North Korea, but low-hanging fruit which could be resolved with American diplomatic pressure does exist. The Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) is correct to castigate those who believe that the Iranian government or its militia proxies should enjoy an open season on group members. Opposing massacres is not synonymous with support for the group, however; it may no longer be a U.S.-designated terror group, but remains just as much an authoritarian cult. And while MKO spokesmen may castigate the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, the real victims of the MKO lay within the group itself. Camp Liberty—the successor to Camp Ashraf—exists as much if not more to keep MKO members insulated from the real world and under the control of MKO leader Maryam Rajavi’s commissars than as a means of protection for group members.

Other camps exist in the Tindouf province of southwestern Algeria. Here, perhaps 40,000 residents of southern Morocco, Algeria, western Mali, and northern Mauritania languish in camps controlled by the once-Marxist Polisario Front, largely kept from returning home by the group’s political commissars and the Algerian government. During a recent visit to Dakhla, in Western Sahara, I had the opportunity to speak to former members who described not only their own escape from the camps, but the attempts by others who were forcibly returned to the camps, where Polisario authorities punished them for the audacity of seeking to return home rather than languish in camps 22 years after the war between Morocco and Algeria ended. Simply put, Polisario realizes that if the camps close, the gravy train of international assistance would end and the Polisario would lose its raison d’être.

The Polisario is not the only Cold War remnant stubbornly holding hostages. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia also engages in the practice, holding some prisoners for more than a decade. While some journalists parachute in and whitewash just what happens in FARC camps, it is hard to see “cultural programming” as anything other than an attempt at ideological re-education.

The Obama administration came into office seemingly committed to prioritizing human rights, never mind the debates about how best to guarantee rights, freedom, and liberty. The State Department became a revolving door not only for journalists, but for human-rights advocates, most notably Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski and writer Samantha Power. Increasingly, however, it seems such figures are either window dressing for an administration so disinterested in human rights that it is willing to sanction political concentration and re-education camps or, worse yet, that these figures are so permeated by moral equivalency and skewed in their understanding of what universal human rights are that they are willing to normalize with the regimes, sponsors, and groups which engage in such practices.

Concentration camps and slavery (discussed in a previous post) are two phenomena that simply should not exist in the 21st century. That they do is a sad testament to the reality of regimes like North Korea’s, China’s, Algeria’s, Venezuela’s, and Cuba’s, and the choices which successive U.S. administrations–both Democrat and Republican–have made to not let such issues be stumbling blocks to engaging with the United States on other issues.

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Oh To Be Young and Socialist Again

If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

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If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

Any attempt to refight the political wars of the 1980s may be a futile endeavor, but the willingness of the press to allow de Blasio to paint his support for the Sandinistas as part of the journey that led him to the mayoralty bodes ill for the city. That’s not just because the Sandinista cause was largely discredited when they were finally forced by the stalemate in the fighting to face the people of Nicaragua in a democratic election. Their defeat at the polls vindicated the efforts of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to support the rebels who resisted the Marxists and exposed the group’s supporters like de Blasio as fronts for Communist killers.

That may not be a disqualifying attribute to many New York voters, but it ought to give pause to those whose livelihoods and safety will depend on de Blasio and the wrecking crew he brings to City Hall next January not demolishing all that Giuliani and Bloomberg accomplished in the last 20 years.

To those who are either too young or too deluded by liberal propaganda to know better, the struggle against the socialism that de Blasio backed was the most important battle fought in the last half of the 20th century. Those who aimed at stopping socialism were not trying to hurt the poor; they were defending human rights against a political cause that sacrificed more than 100 million victims on the Marxist altar. The verdict of history was delivered as the Berlin Wall fell and the “socialist motherland” collapsed, and along with it much of the ideological house of cards that liberals had built as they sought to discredit or defeat anti-Communists. It says a lot about de Blasio’s commitment to that vicious political faith that even after the Iron Curtain fell and the peoples of captive Eastern Europe celebrated the defeat of the Communist cause that he would make a pilgrimage to one of its last strongholds in Cuba to celebrate his marriage.

If de Blasio were willing to admit that much of what he said in defense of the Sandinistas and Cuba was wrong, there would be nothing to say now about his past other than to state that he had learned from it. But since he appears to be proud of his support for tyrants, it is fair game for his critics. More to the point, it is also worth asking just how much those experiences still influence a politician who will have at his disposal the vast powers of the mayoralty. 

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The Mockery of Cuba Sanctions Exceptions

Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:

White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.

One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

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Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:

White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.

One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of people-to-people and educational exchange appears to be interpreted liberally both by the Obama administration and by travel companies. This past week, I came across a “Journey to Cuba in 2013” brochure by the high-end travel company Travcoa. The brochure outlines a stellar 10-day itinerary, visiting Cienfugos, Santa Clara, Cayo Santa Maria, Remedios, the Bay of Pigs, Havana, and San Luis, all for around $7,000. The tourism must be great, but the educational opportunities appear fleeting: after lunch at a small paladar, the group can talk to its owner; at a small coastal village, talk to fisherman about fishing; visit a school and learn about Cuba’s education system; and visit a Santería priest to learn about the Santería religion. The museum guide at the Bay of Pigs will offer a Cuban perspective of that aborted invasion; while at another museum, guests can learn about Cuba’s efforts to promote literacy. At a Havana night club, tourists can learn about Cuban jazz.

I do not mean to diminish Travcoa—I’ve never been on their tours, but I know a number of people who have and speak very highly of their experience. The company is simply fulfilling a service to meet a demand, and it is not alone in doing so, as any Google search will indicate. The fact of the matter, though, is that the educational exchange the company promotes does not differ much from what tourists on non-educational trips to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, or Central Asia might do.

Now, the wisdom of Cuba sanctions is another issue. I support the sanctions, and will push back on those who wish to dismantle them simply because they see them as a relic from the past. The major problem with lifting the sanctions at this point is that the main beneficiaries of tourist dollars will not be the Cuban people, but rather the government which owns and operates most of the tourist facilities at which most high-end tourists will stay. Indeed, from what I understand from Cuba watchers, it is not simply the government which is invested most deeply in these facilities but the Cuban military and Raul Castro himself. The idea of pumping money into an aging and decrepit dictatorship risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the Obama administration is going to lift sanctions, however, it should simply declare its intention to do so, and defend its position against its critics. The idea that it can, however, with sleight of hand and an educational exemption eviscerate the remaining barriers to infusing the Castro regime with hard currency is an insult to intelligence, and diminishes legitimate educational exchanges elsewhere.

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About Those Cuban “Reforms” …

On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.

Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:

The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”

Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.

Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.

But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.

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On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.

Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:

The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”

Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.

Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.

But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.

For example, this morning CNN reports:

Starting next year, Cubans traveling abroad will face fewer hurdles leaving the country.

The official news site Granma reported Tuesday that the Cuban government will no longer require a travel permit and a letter of invitation.

The move is part of the reforms that President Raul Castro promised when he took office in 2008.”

But don’t forget the fine print:

The new change, however, does not mean that anyone wanting to travel will get a passport.

‘The ordinary passport will be issued to the Cuban citizens who meet the requirements of the Migration Law,’ which is being modified, according to the report in Granma.

While the report does not say how the law will be altered, it does add that the government will fight brain — and money — drain ‘from the aggressive and subversive plans of the US government and its allies.’ It will do so by leaving in place measures to preserve ‘human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations.'”

In other words, nothing is really changing, other than the verbiage.

With Raul Castro’s takeover of the Cuban government four years ago from his brother, many hoped that the totalitarian government would ease its grip on power, instituting reforms that could bring Cuba into the 21st century. Like with North Korea’s recent leadership change, we have seen nothing of the sort. Yesterday Max discussed how, despite some surface reforms instituted by the newly appointed Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains a wasteland for the majority of its citizenry. Cuba, like North Korea, has spent the majority of the last century ruled by a family that has no desire to give up the luxurious lifestyle they lead for the sake of democracy. Max explained it perfectly yesterday in regards to North Korea, and unfortunately, the same applies to Cuba: “Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as [insert Communist tyrant’s name here] remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.”

Sadly, as with the stories about North Korea’s relaxation of dress code standards to allow more Western attire, the media appears to have fallen for this distraction, playing right into the hands of yet another Communist dictator. For the victims of Castro and their family members in the West, it will soon become clear that today’s headlines don’t signify any shift from the status-quo.

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Cuba Anxiously Eyes Venezuelan Election

Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

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Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

“Many see that things are not going well and have brought forward their decision to desert because they think the defeat of Chávez is imminent,” Yumar Gomez, a doctor who found his way to Miami, told El Universal. “And let me tell you… many don’t want to go back to Cuba.” Delia Garcia, a Cuban nurse, added: “Our leaders tell us that Chávez is not certain for October and say that the rate of desertions is now accelerating. That’s why I’m leaving. If there isn’t going to be any more misión in Venezuela, where will they send us then? To Burundi?”

The revelation that Havana’s communist rulers aren’t betting on a Chavez victory is another welcome boost for the Capriles campaign. After all, Chavez has never looked as vulnerable as he does now. His grandiose public works schemes are coming undone through the incompetence and corruption that inevitably accompanies the stuffing of political appointees into state-owned companies. For example, FONDEN, a Chavez-controlled fund that has spent $100 billion of Venezuelan oil revenue over the last seven years while bypassing the approval of the country’s congress, has come under fire for a range of misdemeanours, from abandoned building projects to the purchase of Russian fighter jets. And after a series of devastating fires and explosions at various oil installations, including one at the Amuay refinery in August in which more than 40 people were killed, it is hard to find a single Venezuelan who retains faith in PDVSA, the national oil company milked as a cash cow by Chavez.

As talk of an opposition victory on Sunday gathers pace, so does speculation that Chavez will consult the playbook of his close friend, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and manipulate the election, perhaps by intimidating voters in areas that lean towards Capriles, or even by stealing it outright. Last week, the Spanish newspaper ABC claimed that Chavez has been readying revolutionary militias, modeled on the feared Basij units in Iran, for mobilization in the event that he is defeated.

Still, as Diego Arria, the former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and a leading opposition figure, pointed out in a recent interview with New York’s WABC radio, such action is unlikely to be successful without the backing of the Venezuelan armed forces. And so far, Venezuela’s military commanders, mindful that Chavez may shortly succumb to the cancer eating away at him, have stated that they will respect the choice of the voters.

Is the Chavez era coming to an end? One would be foolhardy to make that exact prediction, but even so, the signs all point to the Comandante emerging from Sunday’s election chastened, and the opposition further empowered.

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Is it Okay to Love a Murdering Dictator?

Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen will be using his day off to fly back to Florida today to hold a news conference tomorrow to make a public apology for his published remarks in which he spoke of his “love” for longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While the famously loquacious and largely unrestrained Guillen is entitled to his opinion, the fact that the institution that employs him understands that a public mea culpa is necessary illustrates that at least in southern Florida, expressing affection for a Communist murderer is not deemed acceptable behavior.

Guillen, a native of Venezuela who stirred up a much smaller controversy when he previously spoke of his admiration for that country’s authoritarian leader Hugo Chavez, has a reputation for shooting off his mouth about just about anything rather than being a political activist. Though Cuban-Americans are rightly up in arms about what he said and any hint of a boycott of the Marlins game would be disastrous for a franchise desperate to attract fans to their new ballpark, it is likely that Guillen will survive this mess. But what is interesting about this kerfuffle is the fact that it may be one of the last gasps of an effort to hold the Havana regime in opprobrium despite the efforts of many liberals (and the Obama administration) to lower the volume of protests about human rights in Cuba.

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Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen will be using his day off to fly back to Florida today to hold a news conference tomorrow to make a public apology for his published remarks in which he spoke of his “love” for longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While the famously loquacious and largely unrestrained Guillen is entitled to his opinion, the fact that the institution that employs him understands that a public mea culpa is necessary illustrates that at least in southern Florida, expressing affection for a Communist murderer is not deemed acceptable behavior.

Guillen, a native of Venezuela who stirred up a much smaller controversy when he previously spoke of his admiration for that country’s authoritarian leader Hugo Chavez, has a reputation for shooting off his mouth about just about anything rather than being a political activist. Though Cuban-Americans are rightly up in arms about what he said and any hint of a boycott of the Marlins game would be disastrous for a franchise desperate to attract fans to their new ballpark, it is likely that Guillen will survive this mess. But what is interesting about this kerfuffle is the fact that it may be one of the last gasps of an effort to hold the Havana regime in opprobrium despite the efforts of many liberals (and the Obama administration) to lower the volume of protests about human rights in Cuba.

Guillen is far from the only person who has given Castro some love lately. Hollywood leftists such as Sean Penn and Oliver Stone have lauded the Cuban regime and even mainstream media stars like Andrea Mitchell have bought into Michael Moore’s lies about the Communist regime’s health care system being better than that of the United States. For many liberals, focusing on Cuba’s lack of political freedom is an unwelcome throwback to the Cold War. The plight of Cubans who lack basic human rights and live in squalor largely due to their government’s Stalinist ideology means little to most Americans who have come to view the cause of Cuban freedom with indifference if not distaste. There’s little doubt that had Guillen stayed with the Chicago White Sox or gone to some other team without a potent Cuban-American constituency, he would not be on the hot seat on which he currently finds himself.

That alone is a reason to think that firing would be unfair even if it is difficult to sympathize with him. He is fortunate to have expressed sympathy for a mere Communist murderer rather than to have uttered anything that could be construed as racist. This is, after all, the 30th anniversary of the interview on ABC’s “Nightline” program in which Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis lost his job when he claimed African-Americans lacked the “necessities” to be baseball managers and executives. Though Campanis had earned far more goodwill in a long career of racial fair dealing than the obnoxious Guillen has ever done (Guillen dodged a similar bullet earlier in his career for uttering an anti-gay slur), his career vanished in an instant with one foolish and wrongheaded remark.

Those who cry for Guillen’s head will probably be disappointed, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. The practice of making celebrities walk the plank for saying the wrong thing in the wrong place for things for which they might otherwise get a pass for under other circumstances is not a particularly attractive aspect of American popular culture. But while I’m not sorry to see Guillen forced to apologize for his “love” for Castro, no one should be under the misapprehension that a sea change on attitudes toward the Cuban regime has not already happened. It is that willingness to appease the tyrants of Havana that we should be regretting more than a stupid comment by an overly talkative baseball manager.

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