NPR logo Mark Sawyer: McCain's Crooked Talk on Cuba

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.

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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

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