12/31/2008 Hello Fidel? It’s me Barack…


This is a phone call that needs to be made, a call that should have been made in the last century…a call that will initiate the end of a now senseless embargo of Cuba.


Historians continue to argue the merits of the 1962 embargo. Was it a necessary tool to contain Castro’s promise to export the revolution to other Latin American countries? A logical move to contain Marxism and by extension Communism in the hemisphere? Or was it an overreaction by the US (in a fervent anti-communist atmosphere) that actually drove Castro into the Soviet camp?


The bottom line is…it doesn’t matter. Communism failed long ago, the Soviet Union fell apart, and Cuba hasn’t been a threat for a quarter of a century. That wasn’t always true of course. Castro did allow Kruschev’s nuclear weapons into Cuba (after we tried to invade the Bay of Pigs and after we initiated the embargo). Castro did put troops, money and weapons into Angola and did try a laughable invasion of Grenada. But he hasn’t been more than an irritant since Ronald Reagan crushed the Granadan invasion in 1983.


So why has the embargo remained in place? Because it’s a relic of the cold war, because Florida is a critical prize in every US Presidential election and South Florida has always contained a rabidly anti Castro and politically active Cuban-American community (although younger Cuban-Americans are neither as anti-communist or anti-Castro as earlier generations).


And why does it matter that the embargo be lifted now? Because we are reliving the past, with a chance to make the right choice, and because Cuba offers the perfect first step in the transition between George Bush’s isolationism and Barack Obama’s engagement.


There is trouble brewing now in Latin America…Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is the new strongman in the hemisphere. The leftist leader models himself on other revolutionary Latin American figures, including Castro, with whom he is very close. He is the region’s most powerful and most vocal anti-American agitator. Unlike Castro who ran a country with limited resources, Venezuela is oil-rich (one of the ten biggest reserves of any country). Oil money as we have seen can buy power, and…as we have also seen it can cause mischief.


Chavez has allied himself with Russian strongman (shadow leader?) Vladimir Putin. Russia, which is also oil rich and restless…is angry over what it sees as Western encroachment into its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And the US move to expand NATO onto Russia’s Western doorstep. So Russia, to counter US influence in its neighborhood is looking for allies in ours. Russian warships have sailed through the Caribbean to visit both Venezuela and Cuba, and Putin is solidifying his relationships with both countries. This is a dangerous Déjà vu made possible by the absence of meaningful US diplomacy in the Caribbean and Latin America and our bullheadedness in Eastern Europe and Georgia..


There are dangerous similarities between this situation and the early sixties. It is much more dangerous than it appears, not because of a potential clash in either region, but because an extrapolation of regional tensions could renew cold-war style brinkmanship between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.


Now, having outlined the danger let me posit the remedy (again). Cuba, and by extension Latin America are begging for a positive, conciliatory US initiative. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy decided to rewrite US relations with Latin America, countering perceptions (many of them real) of exploitation with a new spirit of cooperation. Kennedy not only visited many Latin American countries he engaged their leaders at the White House. John Kennedy was immensely popular
among the people of Latin America because he told them that South America mattered to North America (although some scholars argue he did the right thing mostly out of the fear of Communism spreading across the region).


It seems to me the region… having been ignored for so long by the US, is ripe for a new initiative, a counterweight to men like Chavez. A cooperative based on interests that really are mutual and regional, not just colored to appear that way.


And who better than Barack Obama, compared in so many ways to John Kennedy, who can travel many miles toward genuine hemispheric relations by traveling just 90 miles to Havana and opening up a door that could have been opened long ago.