Get ready for the U.S. to make a big mistake on Cuba.
Sixty percent of Americans favor re-establishing ties with Cuba, in the last Gallup poll on the issue and that was four years ago. Meanwhile, more Americans are traveling to Cuba -- erasing memories of Fidel Castro confiscating property and wealth while working with Russia to threaten the U.S. with missiles.
And now President Obama’s new Secretary of State is on the record calling for the U.S. to end cold war sanctions against Cuba’s communist regime.
John Kerry, the new boss at the State Department, has criticized the “power of the Cuban-American lobby” and a half-century of hatred of Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro.
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As a senator, Kerry voted against the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which tightened trade restrictions on Cuba. Back in 2000, Kerry said: "We have a frozen, stalemated counterproductive policy [on Cuba]… There's just a complete and total contradiction between the way we deal with China, the way we deal with Russia, the way we have been dealing with Cuba. … The only reason we don't re-evaluate the policy is the politics of Florida.”
Secretary Kerry is not alone. Chuck Hagel, the president’s choice to become Secretary of Defense, has been an out-spoken critic of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and restrictions on travel to the Caribbean nation.
The former Nebraska senator has called on the U.S. to “engage” with Cuba just as we have with communist countries like Vietnam and China.
President Obama’s decision to elevate two such vocal advocates for rapprochement with Cuba has attracted little press attention. But it is just the latest in a string of signals that big changes are imminent.
As a matter of politics, the Democrat in the White House did surprisingly well with Florida’s Cuban American voters in winning Florida in the 2012 election. Older Cubans who traditionally support anti-Castro Republicans largely stayed with the GOP but younger Cubans voted for President Obama. And the young voices are becoming more vocal about the need for a new era of U.S. policies that bring change to Cuba through closer ties to the U.S.
In addition, Fidel Castro is now 86 and in poor health. His brother, Raul, Cuba’s current leader, is 81. And despite the official ban on Americans traveling to Cuba there is a large loophole allowing academics and cultural leaders to go there. Those tourists generally romanticize Cuba’s revolutionary past. And American business is also anxious to see the doors open to investment in an island 90 miles from Miami and ready for an economic boom once trade with the U.S. resumes.
President Obama has been sending signals, too. In his inaugural address last month, he said he wants to “resolve our differences with other nations peacefully -- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
For President Obama, a man looking to make history as part of his second term legacy, that policy makes Cuba a tempting target.
Several Latin countries are joining the chorus of calls for the U.S. to change its attitude toward Cuba. They are pushing the U.S. to allow Cuba to join regional economic groups. On January 28th, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC] even passed its rotating presidency to Cuba’s current leader, Raul Castro. CELAC’s charter mission is to promote democracy and human rights in the region and they are trusting Cuba’s dictators.
With so many signs pointing in one direction – resumption of U.S. ties to Cuba – it is time to call for a STOP sign.
For example, CELAC’s decision is tragically wrong given Cuba’s awful history on human rights and democracy. Cuba continues to jail political opponents and suppress free speech. That is a fact.
Independent observers can see it.
José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch said Castro’s selection as CELAC president “sends a message [that Latin governments] couldn’t care less about the poor human rights record and the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba.”
And it will be a mistake for President Obama to end any part of the U.S. embargo without insisting on a full slate of democratic freedoms, human rights and property rights in Cuba.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last year, I expressed my disagreement with those who have suggested cozying up to Latin American dictators like the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
It is personal with me. My family fled Panama in the early 1950’s to escape the poverty and open the door to education and opportunity. Those doors were shut by a Latin strong man -- Panama’s Arnulfo Arias.
I wrote: “My life's major turn away from poverty came thanks to my father's vision of his children escaping a despot like Arias. That dream of a better life is alive throughout Latin America. To romanticize any dictator is to kill those dreams by condemning poor kids in Latin America, like me, to tyrants and the burden of limited education and economic opportunity."
Congressional Republicans remain largely united in their opposition to normalizing relations with Castro’s Cuba. They are led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lethnien, both Cuban Americans.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, a Cuban American, supports continuing tight restrictions to isolate the Castro regime and promote democracy and human rights for the Cuban people. He is scheduled to become chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel.
It will be up to Rubio, Ros-Lethnien and Menendez to stop President Obama from making a big mistake and turning away from a freedom agenda for America’s neighbors in Latin America.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.