The candidates on Cuba

Latin America is barely visible on America’s radar these days, but it should be, and the announcement Tuesday (Feb. 19) that Fidel Castro was stepping down as president of Cuba may change that, at least temporarily. What happens in Latin America is greatly important to the United States, but for too long we’ve been ignoring it, even as the Chinese and Japanese have increased their economic influence in the region.

Cuba in particular is important because many people see this country’s hostile policies toward Cuba, unchanged since they were implemented at the height of the Cold War, as punitive and overreaching. Cuba hasn’t been a threat to us or the rest of Latin America for decades, and U.S. policies toward it may well be as misguided as the invasion of Iraq.

Nor have they succeeded, either. Castro remained in power for 49 years, and the trade embargo and restrictions on travel only helped him do so. There is increasing evidence that his successor, brother Raul Castro, recognizes the benefits of liberalization and would welcome a more cooperative relationship with the United States.

It’s enlightening to compare the presidential candidates’ positions on Cuba. John McCain’s stance is much like that of his fellow Republican, President Bush. He supports continuing the embargo, as well as the current harsh restrictions on travel and remittances to loved ones from family members in this country.

Barack Obama believes that, after 50 years of a failed policy, it is time for a new approach, one that emphasizes engagement rather than hostility. In an op-ed piece published last summer in the Miami Herald, in the heart of Cuban America, he called for easing restrictions on travel and remittances to the island. Elsewhere, he’s made a broader case that travel and trade will do more to democratize Cuba than hostility and oppression.

And Hillary Clinton? Although she has been to China and supports relations with Vietnam, on Cuba she’s a hard-liner. She has stated quite clearly that she is content to stick with past policies. Indeed, she hasn’t even come out in favor of resuming the non-tourist people-to-people exchanges her husband allowed when he was president (Bush canned them in 2004).

This difference between Obama and Clinton (and McCain) is consequential. It showcases Obama’s willingness to look for fresh approaches to long-standing problems. It’s what he means when he talks about change.