December 14, 2012 |

CUBA CENTRAL News Blast: Advice and Dissent: What Happens on Cuba if John Kerry and Chuck Hagel Join Obama’s Cabinet?

The staff of the Center for Democracy in the Americas wishes to acknowledge the horrific gun tragedy that took place in Connecticut today, offer our condolences to the families affected by the violence, and remember that this is the eighth mass shooting that we have experienced in the U.S. this year. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence offers a petition here and an opportunity to send a message to the families and victims affected by the school shooting today.

Days ago, the future of Cuba policy in President Obama’s second term seemed predictable.

In his first term, Latin America never rose to his priority list.  At her confirmation hearings, Hillary Clinton promised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she and the president were prepared to “seize the opportunities in Latin America,” but they never did.

After repealing all restrictions on family travel, opening categories of People-to-People travel, and restarting migration talks, progress on engagement was thwarted by the imprisonment of Alan Gross and the administration’s reluctance to negotiate directly with Cuba for his release.

Following the election, the president was said to be close to appointing Susan Rice, his U.N. Ambassador, to be Secretary of State – she once told the United Nations that U.S. sanctions were not the cause of deprivation among the Cuban people – but her candidacy was devoured by opponents on issues ranging from the tragedy in Benghazi to the contents of her investment portfolio, and she never arrived at the point of being nominated or given close to a fair hearing.

On the heels of her misfortune, things could get interesting.  If the speculation now is accurate, President Obama may appoint Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  By doing so, the president would bring into his security cabinet two seasoned figures with long histories as Cuba policy reformers and simultaneously place the Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of some of the coldest of the Cold Warriors in Congress.

Kerry, a steadfast opponent of U.S. intervention in Latin America since his election in 1984, has been consistently smart on Cuba.  Hesupported travel rights not just for Cuban Americans but for all Americans.  He would not give the Obama administration a blank check to run the USAID regime change programs in Cuba and held up funding when he could.  He was a reliable skeptic of the millions spent on the broadcast propaganda arms – Radio and TV Martí – and of the consultants and bureaucrats who created programming that most Cubans don’t see, hear, or care much about.

Chuck Hagel served two terms in the Senate and called our policy toward Cuba “senseless.”  When former President Jimmy Carter visited the island in 2002, he was the only Member of Congress Carter considered to ask to join his delegation, but Hagel stayed in Washington to participate in a Senate debate on trade.  In 2001, hecosponsored legislation to open the Cuban market further for sales of food and medicine and repeal restrictions on travel.

If these two men are nominated and confirmed, this doesn’t mean President Obama will elevate Cuba as a foreign policy priority.  But it does mean that seasoned figures who urged the country to dump its Cold War baggage and normalize relations would be at the table when critical strategic decisions are made.

However, if Kerry is chosen, he will most likely be sworn in as a witness by Senator Bob Menendez, the presumptive chairman of a vastly changed Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   Menendez, a Democrat but a dissenter on liberalization, promised to filibuster “any bill that in any way lifts or lessens the travel ban on Cuba.”  He joined forces with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a failed effort to stop the Obama people-to-people travel reforms in 2011.   He threatened the budget of the OAS after it opened the door to Cuba rejoining its membership.   He even told the New York Times he would prefer to leave Alan Gross in prison, because “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.”

Gone from the ranks of Republicans will be Senator Richard Lugar, a forward-leaning statesman whose report, “Changing Cuba Policy – In the United States National Interest,” is still filled with useful policy ideas that were offered to the Obama team, many never adopted, when it was published in 2009.  Instead, Kerry would be staring up at the scowling faces of Senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio, who could try and use the hearing to create a record against reform.  So long as Kerry has sound instructions from the top, he will do what is needed to avoid being boxed in.

This shouldn’t be hard.  In an election that took place some five weeks ago, President Obama faced an opponent, endorsed by Florida’s Cuban American delegation in Congress, and they could not deliver the Cuban vote, Miami-Dade, or the state, much less the country, to Governor Romney. Politically, Mr. Obama owes the hardliners nothing, and can use his second term to establish a legacy on Cuba.  Should he have ears to hear it, he could have Secretaries of State and Defense to advise him on how it could be done.


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(c) 2012 Center for Democracy in the Americas