Friday, February 22, 2008

Cuba Policy: Obama vs Clinton

I was again very satisfied to see that US policy towards Cuba was brought up in the debate last night in Austin, and happy to see that the leading Presidential Democrat candidates had different views on the matter. But, in my opinion, Sen. Barack Obama's comments were very impressive.

Last July, Sen. Obama made headlines when he responded to a YouTube question asking if he would meet "without precondition" and "during the first year" of his administration with leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, or Cuba. Sen. Obama said yes. His reason: "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous." Sen. Obama then added that diplomatic talks with Syria and Iran concerning missions in Iraq would help in "stabilizing the region."

Yesterday, he reiterated similar remarks, but with more focus on US policy towards Cuba, and with important clarifications. "[A]s a show of good faith," Sen. Obama would loosen the Cuban family travel and remittance restrictions imposed by the current administration, and be open to meeting "without preconditions" with the leaders of the Cuban government. But, he added that an "agenda" of calls for human rights, release of political prisoners and press freedoms would be prepared if such meetings would occur. Sen. Clinton, neck-and-neck Democrat challenger, did not show support for these specific and brave steps.

[Transcript of yesterday's Cuba policy debate provided by Presidential Candidate Cuba Watch]

Last July, Sen. Clinton called Sen. Obama's comments "irresponsible and frankly naive." Yesterday, Sen. Obama received applause for his position.

But, what I found most impressive was Sen. Obama's comments near the end of this policy debate. Last July, I wrote about how Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, noticed that Sen. Obama showed "humility" in his support for diplomacy with other nations. Yesterday, Sen. Obama further articulated this feeling:

"... the problem is, if we think that meeting with the President [of the United States] is a privilege that has to be earned [by other nations], I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time. And I think that it’s important for us in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step."

He's right on the money. Again, Sen. Obama reiterates the important psychological value of sensing how others nations may perceive our actions [as a Superpower], and understanding the asymmetrical relationship that exists between certain countries, such as between Cuba and the US. Simply put, it means placing yourself in the other's shoes.

Application of this form of empathy to the US/Cuba relationship has been covered by respected historians James G. Blight and Philip Brenner in their important book titled "Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers After the Missile Crisis." In the book, Blight and Brenner explain what they call "realistic empathy":

"[W]e propose that a perspective rooted in realistic empathy provides a way to appreciate the nature of the U.S.-Cuban relationship without ideological blinders. As applied to this case, an empathetic approach would begin with the assumption that neither the United States nor Cuba holds the balance of virtue, and that the aims of both countries deserve to be accorded respect. It requires careful listening to both sides, devoid of the temptation to rush to judgment. It then suggests an approach to reduce the hostility between them, and enable those who could find common ground to do so."

I think Sen. Barack Obama has shown that he understands this important value, and can lead the United States away from past deleterious policies of isolation and hostility.

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