Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Cuba, Obama must match words with action

By DeWayne Wickham

President Barack Obama went to the Summit of the Americas last week hoping to revive America’s prestige in this hemisphere by promising to forge a new relationship between the United States and Latin America.

"There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values," he said at the summit’s opening ceremony in Trinidad and Tobago. But leaders of the 33 nations in attendance pressed the U.S. president to match his words with action. Their countries have heard such talk before.

In his 1823 State of the Union address, President James Monroe promised to protect the hemisphere from the European powers. But while the Monroe Doctrine largely succeeded in doing that, it became the context for nearly 200 years of U.S. hegemony in the region.

So, one after another, Latin American leaders pressed Obama to back up his pledge by resolving the region’s most contentious issue: the United States’ 47-year-old political and economic embargo of Cuba.

If Obama didn’t know it when he went to the summit, he has to understand now that the diplomatic road to Latin America runs through Havana. In ordering an end to restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba just days before he departed for the summit, Obama apparently sought to push the embargo to the back burner of the conference’s agenda. But that half-measure highlighted the incredulity of a policy that gives Cuban Americans a right that is denied to almost every other American.

Obama may be rescued from this misstep by the opening it produced. Cuban President Raul Castro said on the eve of the summit, from which Cuba was excluded, that he is willing to have an open dialogue with the Obama administration. "We have sent messages to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, whenever they want," he said. "Human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."

That’s exactly what Obama should do to prove he meant it when he told Latin leaders "we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements."

Obama’s willingness to break with the past will be tested by the distance his government puts between the diplomatic doublespeak that has the U.S. trying to strangle the economic life out of communist Cuba, while asking communist China to subsidize its debt. Latin American leaders see the hypocrisy in this, and so should Obama.

Over the past decade, I’ve made 14 reporting trips to Cuba. I’ve spoken with dissidents, intellectuals, shopkeepers, and with hundreds of others in all sectors of Cuban society. I’ve spent time in their homes and gone shopping with them to see how difficult it is for many Cubans to make ends meet. I’ve also interviewed government leaders such as Fidel Castro, Ricardo Alarcon, president of the national assembly, and Ruben Remigio Ferro, chief justice of Cuba’s Supreme Court.

These encounters have made it clear to me that Cuba is ready for a new relationship with us.
Castro’s willingness to talk about the hot-button issues that have kept our two nations at loggerheads for nearly half a century should not be left to fester.

If Obama is to separate himself from other U.S. presidents who have offered Latin America lofty words and contemptuous actions, he must broker an end to America’s longstanding conflict with Cuba.

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