Pragmatism, Not Emotion, Must Guide Cuba Policy

Pragmatism, Not Emotion, Must Guide Cuba Policy

“With all due respect.” That’s a fitting sentiment to express to Cuban-Americans angered by President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Their emotions run deep, an indication of the decades of loss and hardship they and their parents experienced as exiles making a new life in a foreign land. To dismiss that pain would be cruel and unjust.

On the other hand, those feelings are not a sufficient reason to maintain an outmoded and failed policy. Rather, we must acknowledge that the United States’ objective remains the same: to bring about in Cuba a transition to democracy that makes its people freer and more prosperous. What’s changing is the strategy.

This is hard for many Cuban-Americans to accept, especially those in politics. You could hear it in the adamant tone of Sen. Marco Rubio as he pounded through media interviews after the announcement of the administration’s new policy, which aims also to diminish trade and travel restrictions.

Rubio cast his feelings in strong language. He called the shift “willfully ignorant.” It is “absurd” and a concession to oppressors and tyranny.

This language speaks for a community that for the most part chose to leave its homeland not for economic opportunity but because to stay there they risked losing their liberty or even their lives. Most of them left behind their livelihoods, and many left homes, businesses, property and other wealth for which they would never be compensated.

New Year’s Day will mark the 56th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and the beginning of Castro’s regime. The turmoil and suffering the revolution created for families who fled the island is now often channeled through their children.

Rubio, it should be noted, is not one of these. His parent emigrated before Castro came to power. Yet he sticks to the Cold War script, expressed with typical Republican bluster. He denounced Obama the “single worst negotiator” serving as president in his 43-year lifetime.

No, senator. The U.S.-imposed trade embargo has not toppled the communist regime in Cuba, and it will not. Our country’s stand against the Castro regime was always mostly about the geopolitical threat to us, our country, than it was about the oppression of the Cuban people. The latter is important to us, and always must be, but the geopolitical threat is gone and a new approach is needed. Obama understands that.

Rubio may be gallantly standing up for the honor of the Cuban emigres, for family loyalty, but what exactly does he think he’s doing for actual Cubans?

A common refrain among Cuban-Americans is that the U.S. just needs to cling a little longer to the sanctions. We’re so close, some argue. Just wait a few more years and Fidel Castro will be dead. Venezuela will continue to falter and be unable to prop up Cuba with its oil fortune. As if Raul Castro isn’t now well in control, along with the rest of the Communist Party.

It is time to approach Cuba — cautiously — with a policy of strategic engagement. Isolation has not worked and will not work. One need only consider the other sensational news item this week, involving another totalitarian regime supposedly on its last legs. North Korea was revealed as the force behind the hacking of Sony Pictures and the terroristic threats that prompted the company to pull an upcoming movie from distribution.

In today’s world, even impoverished, isolated rogue nations can use “asymmetrical” tactics, aided by technology, to attack greater powers such as ourselves. Our approach to Cuba ought to be to help it participate in regional trade and prosperity in exchange for ensuring human rights for its citizens and democratic reforms.

Part of the agreement between our nations, hammered out in meetings in Canada and at the Vatican, includes the release of 53 political prisoners from Cuban jails. Tracing what happens to those people next, and monitoring that the jails do not refill, is exactly how the U.S. will press for human rights.

Cuba for too many Americans has become an almost mythical land trapped in a charming time warp. Rubio is right to imply that far too many of us don’t fully grasp that Cubans are trapped in a very different and sinister way, their lives controlled and monitored by the Castros.

He’s wrong, however, to claim that the U.S. government’s new approach is not aimed at freeing them.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at

Photo: jbouie via Flickr


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