A major poll released Monday confirms most Americans, and especially Floridians, feel it’s time to normalize relations with communist Cuba after more than a half century of Cold-War rupture.
But on the same day that the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center of the Atlantic Council issued the poll, the State Department deplored Cuba's recent spate of “arbitrary detentions, physical violence, and other abusive actions...against peaceful human and civil rights advocates.”
So should the majority feel guilty about what they told the Arsht pollsters?
No. If anything, the State statement helps affirm that majority view.
The assumption among hardline anti-communists is that if you don’t agree with the 52-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba; if you oppose the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba; or if you think Cuba should be taken off the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, you must be playing dominoes every night with the Castro brothers.
You too must be a communist.
Which is absurd. The vast majority of Americans want to see regime change in Cuba as much as the Cuban-American congressional caucus does. They’re as troubled by the Cuban dictatorship’s human rights violations as anyone else is. In fact, half those polled by Arsht said the oppression would be one reason to keep current policy.
And yet a majority in the survey – two-thirds in Florida – favor broader engagement with Cuba anyway.
How do you explain that disconnect? My answer: it's because most Americans, as bothered as they are by the Castros' dismal human rights record, do recognize that our decrepit policies haven't done much if anything to change the Cuban tragedy.
I think more Americans are asking whether U.S. Cuba policy is about prodding Cuban reform or about indulging Cuban exile anger. That anger is certainly legitimate – and we salute the fact that the exiles are a potent lobbying force because they vote – but that doesn’t make it the basis of effective foreign policy.
Consider the terrorism sponsor designation, which a majority in the Arsht poll disagree with. Former U.S. intelligence official and author Brian Latell is no Castro apologist. But he told me recently that “the body of evidence that Cuba sponsors terrorism is getting weaker and weaker.”
Most folks in Washington know that too. Which is why our insistence on keeping Cuba on the list risks making us seem petty and petulant like the Castros – and helps them justify their own absurd conviction that hauling dissidents behind bars is a bulwark against yanqui aggression.
Ditto on the embargo, which has utterly failed to dislodge the Castros from power. It is the scapegoat that keeps giving, the Castros’ most convenient excuse for their chronic economic blunders, and one of their most effective tools for staying on top in Havana.
It also keeps U.S. political and economic influence on the sidelines as Cuba prepares for a democratic and capitalist transition when octogenarians Fidel and Raúl Castro are gone.
Still, to exile hardliners like Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the mere suggestion of broader engagement makes us Castro-complicit. Ros-Lehtinen lit into Cuban exile sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul this month after he disclosed he’d traveled to Cuba and talked with officials about political and business issues.
“It’s pathetic,” she said, “that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of [dissidents] in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”
That kind of rhetoric doesn’t just tend to alienate the majorities in the Arsht poll – who include Cuban-Americans. It also tends to insult them. It leaves the impression that Ros-Lehtinen believes Fanjul and everyone who thinks as he now does are either greedy mercenaries or oblivious, moon-eyed lefties. That we’re just impressionable kids captivated by Che Guevara merchandise.
If the Arsht poll – and Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s announcement that he now favors lifting the embargo – reflect anything, it's that Americans, Floridians and Cuban-Americans are thoughtfully considering better ways to bring change to a time-warped neighbor.
At Thanksgiving, I sat down with a group of students from my alma mater, Wabash College, who had just been on a people-to-people visit to Cuba.
They knew that much of what they’d been shown was official propaganda. But they also had a chance to see what the U.S. can help Cubans build on post-Castro, and they sought out candid conversations with those same Cubans about matters from the lack of free expression to the growth of new entrepreneurship. When they came through Miami they made sure to hear the anti-Castro exile perspective.
Out of that more informed approach should come a more effective Cuba policy. To my mind, the only thing the Wabash students were trampling on was more than a half century of failure.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.