Maria Cardona: Secretary of State John Kerry opening embassy in Cuba, a major step in restoring U.S.-Cuba ties
She says the Cold War embargo meant to isolate Cuba has been a failure; it's time for the U.S. to take a different course
Editor’s Note: Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
In 1999, I was communications director of a federal agency then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I worked with the Department of Justice and State on the case of Elian Gonzalez, an adorable 5-year-old Cuban boy who was found floating in an inner tube off the coast of Florida late that year after his mother and others died attempting to reach the U.S.
The case triggered a major political and cultural firestorm when Elian’s father asked for his son to be returned to him in Cuba. The struggle that ensued was just another chapter in the island nation’s storied, stormy and (nearly) nuclear past with the United States – and back then I could hardly have imagined that this day could come.
But it has, and today Secretary of State John Kerry made history in Havana, Cuba, as he reopened the U.S. Embassy there. The visit marks the first time a secretary of state has traveled to Cuba in 70 years, and celebrates the official thawing of the relationship since the Cold War-era establishment of the Cuban embargo in 1962.
Restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, a step first announced last December, carries political controversy for President Obama. The vast majority of congressional Republicans and a few Democrats have harshly criticized the administration for having the audacity to step into what is known in Cuban American circles as the third rail of politics.
But while the pain and the anger felt by the Cuban exile community about this issue is real and needs to be fully acknowledged, we also must admit that the embargo has been a failure, that we must take a different course.
Last month President Obama noted that “there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation. But it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for 50 years. It shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse for the Cuban people.” He is right.
After more than 50 years of isolation, it is time for the United States to change its strategy towards Cuba. We are no longer in the throes of the Cold War. We are not in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. For 55 years, the United States has done everything possible to shut off key resources to the island in hopes of weakening the Castro regime to the point where it would collapse or be easily overthrown.
But the perseverance and the staying power of the Castro regime has befuddled many, and the embargo has only worsened the suffering of the Cuban people. It has failed to spur the desired changes. Moreover, no other country in the world maintains an embargo against Cuba, making ours ineffective.
Today’s reopening of the embassy in Havana is an important step in restoring full diplomatic relations, but Obama can only do what is within the limits of his presidential powers. Only Congress can end the embargo, and President Obama has urged them to do so quickly. But in this do-nothing Republican Congress that opposes everything President Obama proposes, there is scant hope of this.
The issue has even bled into the 2016 Presidential race, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, delivering a key speech calling for ending the embargo, and closer ties with Cuba. She gave the speech at Florida International University, where Sen. Marco Rubio, a contender for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination, is a part-time teacher. In sharp contrast with Clinton, Rubio adamantly opposes any thawing of our relations with Cuba, or any loosening of the embargo.
But Sen. Rubio and Republicans should take note that the country agrees with President Obama and the Democrats’ approach to Cuba. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans said they supported the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. And 77% of respondents in five Latin American countries surveyed by Pew – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela – also supported the U.S. decision.
Republicans oppose restoring ties because they believe it is a gift to the brutal Cuban dictatorship that has made tens of thousands of its citizens suffer and continues to violate their human and civil rights. But let us be very clear: This policy change does not reward the regime or deny human rights abuses by the regime. The United States will continue to denounce and condemn arbitrary harassment against Cuban citizens who seek to express their opinions.
By bringing Cuba back into the fold of civil society, the United States and other international partners will have better leverage to insist on humane treatment, and promote a realistic evolution towards civil society and a more open democratic political process.
This is a new day and a much-needed chance at a brighter future for the Cuban people, one with more open cooperation on issues of climate change, health, migration, technology, and entrepreneurship. U.S. businesses are eager to seek new opportunities for the U.S. market and our consumers as well. It is a win-win approach.
The embassy in Havana will reopen today with a ceremony featuring Cuban-American poet and writer, Richard Blanco, reading a poem honoring the stories of people from both sides of the 90 mile strait between Cuba and Florida.
Republicans have a chance here to demonstrate they are not all stuck in the past; that they can accept positive change instead of aligning themselves with failed policies that have only hurt the very people they claim to want to help.
With this modern policy between the United States and Cuba, we will not see another Elian Gonzalez crisis. For me, that is reason enough to celebrate!