Shadow Government

Cuba policy in a second Obama term

Critics of current U.S. policy towards Cuba have already begun speculating what unilateral changes may be in store for that contentious relationship during President Obama's second term. By winning the state of Florida -- home to the highest concentration of Cuban exiles -- despite implementing some initiatives in his first term that were opposed by Cuban Americans in Congress, President Obama, in their view, can be aggressive in further liberalizing policy without fear now of any political fallout (although widely reported exit polls that suggested up to 48 percent of Cuban Americans voted for Obama have been debunked by CapitolHillCubans.com).

Yet however the numbers play out in Florida, frankly it is no more than irrational exuberance to expect any significant change in U.S.-Cuba relations over the next four years -- that is, barring the deaths of both Fidel and Raul Castro.

In the first place, the Cuban American bloc remains solid in Congress. In the Senate, the formidable duo of Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been augmented by Senator-Elect Ted Cruz (R-TX) to keep the administration honest on policy. In the House, anyone who believes newly elected Joe Garcia (D-FL) is going to carry the banner of appeasement is sorely mistaken. He favors family contact, not overturning the embargo.

Secondly, critics have convinced themselves that if it weren't for the Cuban American lobby, the U.S. would have long ago reached an accommodation with the Castro dictatorship. What they refuse to recognize is that the biggest impediment to any fundamental change in the relationship is the absolute unwillingness of the dictatorship to undertake significant reforms that would put pressure on U.S. policymakers to reciprocate with policy changes.

That said, to contemplate any serious re-evaluation of relations on the U.S. part as long as the regime systematically represses the Cuban people - to say nothing of the continued unjust incarceration of U.S. development worker Alan Gross -- and relentlessly continues to thwart U.S. interests in international fora is just self-delusion.

Moreover, even in the space the administration thinks it may have some flexibility on the issue -- expanded travel, supporting micro-enterprises, and increased agricultural sales -- there are complications. The 1996 Cuban Liberty & Democratic Solidarity Act (a.k.a., Helms-Burton) is still on the books and it states that anyone improperly using property illegally confiscated from U.S. citizens (including naturalized citizens of Cuban descent) can be sued in a U.S. court of law. While it is true that the "right of action" has been suspended by successive administrations, the law still holds that anyone using or accessing those properties is liable.

Will a U.S. administration sanction activity that might violate the letter and spirit of U.S. law? For example, what happens when a U.S. tour group traveling under a license as part of the administration's expanded travel program entertains itself at a venue illegally confiscated from its original owners? Or, what happens when a U.S. agricultural company sells its products to Cuba and has to utilize a port, a dock, or otherwise come into some contact with what U.S. law considers stolen property?

It matters little what anyone thinks about the matter; the law is the law. I'm not a lawyer, but one has to wonder how long U.S. law can recognize a wrong was committed against U.S. citizens without giving them the opportunity to redress it. No doubt some creative attorneys are thinking about the same thing.

So, advice to critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba is to re-cork the bubbly. Absent any significant change in Havana, including the earthly expiration of Fidel and Raul Castro, the Holy Grail of unilateral change in U.S. policy is unlikely to be forthcoming. Their energies should instead be directed towards convincing Cuban leaders to establish a concrete rationale as to why any U.S. administration would need to re-evaluate the relationship.

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Shadow Government

One taxpayer's opinion

Conservatives need to face it squarely: We lost the argument. Voters gave us a hearing, gave us the opportunity to make our case, then decided they didn't trust us to solve their problems any more than they did a president who passed legislation they didn't like, by means they didn't approve of, behaved recklessly with the nation's finances, and seemed uninterested in working with the opposition. We need to take ownership of losing the argument rather than taking refuge in excuses or despairing for the future.

Foreign policy was not the fulcrum of this election, but it did matter, and in ways that helped President Obama. Governor Romney is a pragmatic, problem-solving politician who failed to believe he could be elected as one, and adopted an amalgam of policies to cast him in Ronald Reagan's mold. But amidst the mythologizing of Reagan on the right, we ought to consider whether Reagan's national security stance would make sense in our current conditions: When our defense budget is half the world's total, when an actual peer able to contest American primacy is fifteen or twenty years in the future, when our people are weary of all we've undertaken and discouraged at how little help other countries have been, when our economy is shaky and its recovery slow and household incomes pinched, when we are poised to ask Americans worried about the future to receive less from government retirement and medical programs.

Conservatives talk an awful lot about the public losing its commitment to defense spending, and Governor Romney outlined an increase to 4 percent of GDP even as government spending contracts, while the president kept repeating the importance of nation building at home. We ought perhaps to consider that our taxpayers simply aren't persuaded by our arguments that the world is so dangerous or our defense spending too low. Looking at what we have spent across the past decade, and the cost-exchange ratio we are experiencing with our enemies, they may not be wrong. Voters are worried about the state of our union, appear willing to accept near-term risk in national security in order to gain more near-term confidence in our domestic security. It's not an irresponsible choice, given how wide our margin for error is on national security issues and the multiplicity of means beyond military we have to affect them.

The president more accurately read the public mood about the wars than conservatives, too. We Republicans are savagely and rightly critical of President Obama's handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But voters don't want to hear it from the people who lost the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the first time, even if we righted the ship on Iraq. The cost of our mistakes remains fresh in the public mind, and Team Obama got lots of mileage off the trope about returning to office the same people who made the mistakes in the first place. Maybe if we sounded less strident about going to war they would trust our judgment more; but maybe our credibility problem will persist until all of us with connections to the Bush administration are purged from the rolls of future administrations.

We can celebrate that we have won half the argument about the direction of our country: we have pushed debt into the center of political discourse. Voters are worried about our national insolvency, understand it is constraining our ability to fix our problems and sure to lead to even worse problems unless we take corrective action. But we were implausible in our policies. We insisted defense must increase and emphasized growing dangers that will demand more wars. We railed about the Obama administration's defense cuts when our alternative in the House included the same reductions. We criticized the president for not embracing Bowles-Simpson but didn't vote for it ourselves. After arguing debt's centrality, we flatly rejected deals that would have a ten to one cuts to spending ratio. We sounded unsympathetic to our fellow Americans receiving government assistance. Voters considered us right in our descriptions, but reckless or mean in our prescriptions. Perhaps we ought to return to the idea of compassionate conservatism as we frame and argue for our policies. We need more Paul Ryan, not less: Details and principles did get traction, but we didn't have the consistency across our policies to build voters' confidence.

One of the most grevious mistakes of the Bush administration was to assert by executive order what could have been achieved legislatively; it made solutions more brittle and less enduring not to reach for broad public support. In some senses, it feels like we conservatives may be making a similar mistake of asserting what we believe should be done on national security issues instead of listening more to what limits our public wants to place on what we will do and negotiating solutions that don't overwhelm voters.

I urge caution on our Democratic opponents: You ought to be worried that with all its problems, the Republican party captured 48 percent of voters nationwide. And you ought to remind yourselves that every single member of the House of Representatives just got reelected, too; the president isn't the only politician returned to office. That's not a mandate, it's an invitation to compromise.

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