Political Positions

Mark Sawyer: McCain's Crooked Talk on Cuba

Political Positions

Today, we're starting a new series, featuring online commentaries written by our political contributors. "Political Positions" brings you opinionated reactions to the week's news, so be sure to read and respond.

This first piece comes from Mark Q. Sawyer, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and the author of Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba. Here, he writes about what he considers John McCain's politically expedient stances on U.S. relations with Cuba.

Mark Q. Sawyer

hide captionMark Q. Sawyer

Yesterday, Sen. John McCain attacked Sen. Barack Obama — his potential opponent — on Cuba policy and argued we must stay the course with our current lack of engagement with the island. Why is it that McCain supported normalizing relations with Vietnam, a regime that tortured him and cost 58,217 American lives, but won't talk with Cuba?

McCain, who once sensibly suggested that some reforms in Cuba could open the door to constructive engagement, is now hardening his position simply to garner votes among older Cuban American voters in South Florida. He is attempting to draw a distinction between himself and Barack Obama by characterizing Obama as "naive on foreign policy." It may be good politics, but is it sound policy?

McCain quoted Obama as saying, "I believe that normalization of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people, while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene."

McCain sarcastically dismissed Obama's position as "interesting" and asserted his support for the U.S. embargo and lack of dialogue with Cuba that has produced absolutely no change in 40 years. Further, our approach hurts poor Afro-Cubans the most.

Obama's position is both "interesting" and absolutely spot on. During my research in Cuba, one thing became clear: There is nothing that worries the regime and the Communist Party as much as a potential opening with the United States. A flood of investment, tourists, media products and other things — as well as free travel to and from Cuba for its citizens — is the most likely and quickest course to transforming Cuba, advancing freedoms, and potentially destabilizing the current government.

Further, talking to Cuba presents no risks. Cuba is not a military threat to the United States at all. In fact, the most troublesome problem Cuba could present would be if the government unraveled in a disorderly fashion and created a refugee crisis that might drive up to a million Cubans to take to the sea toward the United States.

Talking to Cuba and working on issues of human rights, food support and even trading with Cuba and obtaining things like the vaccine for meningitis developed in Cuba that could save lives in America would be highly productive. Farmers in the United States would benefit from a new market for goods, and Cubans would have more food options.

Opening toward Cuba might also save lives. A sensible immigration policy and a policy that might allow Cuban athletes to participate in U.S. professional leagues the way we once allowed Soviet hockey players in the NHL, and currently Chinese basketball player Yao Ming in the NBA would save lives. Victims of the lack of dialogue include people like Reggaeton artist Elvis Manuel, who died on a raft trip from Cuba, seeking to perform in the United States. Why can't these artists and athletes perform and make a living in the United States without risking death to do so? Of course the fewer lost lives would deprive some of a propaganda victory, but is it worth it? Clearly if we talk to Cuba, we might be able to work out something.

If we as Americans are truly concerned about the Cuban people, saving lives, freedom and an orderly transition in Cuba, we would talk immediately and frequently. We don't because politicians like John McCain want to pander to the Cuban-American leadership for votes in Florida under the idea that a win in Florida might catapult him to the presidency. However, it has not been sound, effective or humane foreign policy for 49 years.

McCain, again rather than taking a sensible and thoughtful approach to foreign policy, has chosen to pick the political expedient route. In so doing — like with his positions on Iraq and Iran — McCain reaffirm his commitment to the disastrous foreign policy approach authored by the Bush administration. It seems, on yet another issue, the Straight Talk Express has lost its way and taken a detour into political pandering.

— Mark Q. Sawyer



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

the truth is not one american understands that keeping cuba under a comunist it only favors multiple islands that live off tourism and it would be a complete fiasco if cuba becomes free its all in the mighty $$$$$$$$$$$$ 666 and a plan to maintain a country under raps allowing smaller islands and country thriving of the tourisim industry this is all politics i bet if there were 600 billion gallos of fuel we be there but sorry that is not the case hey producers here is a grat movie for you to make can you see the real situiation
look beyond the comunism this went down withn the wall and now that castro is at end no one will ever try to make changes to this great land and only because of the bahamas ,jamaica, grand cayman and many more wake up guys cant youseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Sent by cunbano soy | 1:59 PM | 5-22-2008

The only thing you work out by talking to Raul Castro is removing his need to look over his shoulder.

Sent by Quester | 4:26 PM | 5-22-2008

Very thoughtful commentary. Cuba is no threat to the United States at all, though it has some institutions, such as the free health care and free medical care which would cause great distress if it became better-known in the United States.

As we contemplate the possibility of an Obama presidency which might occur as of the year 2009, it's worth keeping in mind that Cuba had a black man elected president by a legitimate, democratic vote, way back in the year 1940.

Finally, it's important to keep in mind the unique US legislation which acts as a great incentive to Cubans to try to come to the United States: the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Cubans are guaranteed admission into the United States should they manage to set foot on U.S. soil. The special rights, special privileges and special advantages which Cubans thus receive, encourage them to keep trying to come to the United States. Mexicans, Haitians and all others are deported, but Cubans get to remain.

Thank you.

Sent by Walter Lippmann | 7:45 PM | 5-22-2008

Thanks for the article, Tom, but that's not the point.What's matter is to leave Cuban people in the island to decide their own path. Stop. As you know well, the very first Cuban President was appointed by your government to inaugurate the pseudo republic on May 20th 1902. Cuba is a small country, but we want to run our business in good neighborhood relations. Thanks.

Sent by Farrar Soto | 11:31 PM | 5-22-2008

Raul doesn't need to look over his shoulder now. America helps support the Castro regime through its loop hole ridden sanctions. Remittances, food sales, third-party company ownership and less than 10% of Americans who illegally travel to Cuba are punished.

The best way to study the effectiveness of sanctions is not by concentrating so much on the sanctioned state but the will of the state that levies the sanctions. US will (and domestic actors) is why sanctions against Cuba haven't worked.

Sent by Symphony | 8:49 AM | 5-23-2008

a small clarification on the comments made by Mr. Lippman: In 1940 Fulgencio Batista was elected president the first after the 1940 constitution. His enemies rumored that he was black but at best he was slightly mulato. What is interesting is that the fist president of the house of representatives and the first vice president of the senate back in 1902, the fist republican government, were both 100% black. The revolutionary movement of 1868 was very much inspired by Abraham Lincoln in the treatment of its blacks citizens and in fact made them full partners and heirs in the fight for freedom. Contrary to the Castro propaganda the tradition of racial equality in Cuba was embraced long before his disastrous regime. As a cuban-american I hope that Sen. Obama means it and that he will change the strategy. The status quo only helps the dictatorship perpetuate itself in power. We can not continue to do the same thing for fifty years and expect different results. Negotiate,SI...abdicate NO!!

Sent by Orestes Fundora | 8:41 PM | 5-26-2008


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