Flake (R-AZ) and Rangel (D-NY) Break Through Taboos on America's Backward US-Cuba Policy

Congressmen Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Charles Rangel (D-NY) have laid out a compelling and sensible plan to reconsider America's relations with Cuba titled "Time for America to be Relevant in Cuba."

Jeff Flake will now be the headline speaker at a forum on Wednesday, 18 April, that runs from 12:15-2:00 pm and helping to launch the New America Foundation's "21st Century US-Cuba Policy Initiative." Former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson and I will both be speaking at this meeting, and the public is invited. (RSVPs required, however, to steve@thewashingtonnote.com -- Congressman Flake's name will be added to the New America announcement on Monday.)

For those who haven't been paying much attention to Cuba since the time when John Bolton recklessly accused the Cubans of manufacturing bio-weapons, Fidel Castro in the not too distant future will be moving on. He's one of the "big personalities" of this era -- and when he does die -- CNN, the History Channel, Discovery, probably even Comedy Central will be airing programs and commentary on this giant political personality who defied and survived a long line of U.S. presidents. Castro will be vilified by some and respected by others. But fascination with Fidel will significantly enlarge the number of Americans who become aware that America's direction on Cuba has largely been the same for decades.

Post-Castro Cuba is something we should be thinking about today. After many decades of failed results from a Cold War-fashioned embargo against the Cubans, Jeff Flake and Charles Rangel -- and many of their colleagues -- believe that a new game plan needs to be considered.

For those who watch Cuban political reality closely, we are already in that era. Fidel's brother, Raul, has already ascended and appears to be running things. While some would think that this was automatic nepotism, Raul actually holds the post in government designed to succeed Cuba's leader if incapacitated. And what is even more interesting is that the Castro brothers have different retainers, run in different circles, and hold different views on what makes sense for Cuba's future. This is only important in that Raul Castro's twice made proposal of comprehensive negotiations with the U.S. indicates new possibilities, new flexibility. . .perhaps.

Flake's and Rangel's important article starts:

Recently the Bush administration has shown new flexibility in foreign policy. Consider: a nuclear deal with North Korea and talks aimed at normalized relations, contact with Syria and Iran, and a stronger push for Israel-Palestine negotiations.

What about Cuba?

Raul Castro, Cuba's interim president and designated successor, has twice called for U.S.-Cuba negotiations. This offer deserves a positive response. Potentially, we could profit by negotiating increased cooperation on drug interdiction and migration policy, the return of American fugitives residing in Cuba, and environmental protections as Cuba explores for oil in waters near our own.

But more than deals with Cuba, we need a new deal with ourselves on Cuba policy.

For too long, our approach has been guided by electoral considerations. Ever-tightening sanctions have won votes in Florida for both Republicans and Democrats. But these sanctions have done nothing to promote change in Cuba, and they have kept American strengths -- diplomacy and contact with American society -- squarely on the sidelines.

Today, Cuba may be on the cusp of change, and we need to take a fresh look. Raul Castro, at age 75, is a committed socialist. He has convicted some pro-democracy activists, released others from jail and continued harassment of dissidents. He has also allowed a debate over past repression to open up in Cuba's cultural sector.

In what reflects smart thinking in our Congress on American diplomatic possibilities, Rangel and Flake call for "a free flow of ideas" that may produce more constructive results than a failed strategy of isolating Cuba. What has happened it seems, in my view, is that we have isolated the U.S. from possibilities with Cuba and have given the emergent troublemaker in Latin America, Hugo Chavez, free reign to try and politically and economically colonize Cuba.

Flake and Rangel argue:

The administration should begin by ending its insistence that it will respond only to Cuba's complete conversion to democracy and free markets. Cubans surely would welcome incremental reforms that improve living standards, not to mention economic and political freedom. The administration's all-or-nothing posture is divorced from the reality on which our approaches to North Korea, China, Vietnam and other communist countries are based. It is a formula for irrelevance.

And Congress should increase American influence by building bridges rather than barriers to Cuba.

The administration has all but cut off individual Americans' contacts with Cuba. People-to-people and academic exchanges, family visits, religious and humanitarian programs, and travel by average Americans are nearly impossible -- if not illegal -- today.

President Bush's theory is that reduced travel cuts Cuba's hard-currency earnings and helps to "hasten the end of the Castro dictatorship." But his intelligence agencies certify that the dictatorship is unbothered: Cuban economic growth was 7.5 percent last year.

We should unite around a principle that Democrats and Republicans have long embraced, a principle that aided the West's success in the Cold War: American openness is a source of strength, not a concession to dictatorships.

It is time to permit free travel to Cuba, as provided in legislation we have introduced. Open travel would create a "free flow of ideas" that "would promote democratization," as dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe wrote shortly after his release from prison in 2004. It would also bring humanitarian benefits to Cubans as family visits increase and travelers boost Cuba's small but vital entrepreneurial sector.

The timing of this piece is perfect for the launch of the Cuba initiative I have been working on.

Both Flake and Rangel are on strong ground -- articulating smart, sensible, even tough U.S. foreign policy that is driven by our interests. What they suggest for Cuba today is consistent with the economic and people-to-people initiatives that the United States launched in past years with Vietnam, China, Russia, and which we are on the verge of doing with North Korea.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note