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U.S.-Cuba Policy: They Have “Conversations”

Congress will soon return from an extended summer break. Lawmakers will dedicate a paltry 15 legislative days before, in the lead up to the November 8 elections, Congress will again adjourn for about five weeks. Overall, that’s good news! The longer lawmakers and politicians are in town, the higher the risk of kooky things happening in the policy arena. However, that does not mean that folks should let down their guard – if they can dream, they will scheme.

For example, for a while now, maybe three to five years, I’ve listened to talking heads and policy makers, usually liberals, talking about having a “conversation” about this or that. Frankly, I find it a little odd. We have conversations all the time; heck, I even used to have them with my dog. In the U.S.-Cuba policy arena having conversations, however, has become a shibboleth – code talk – for proponents of engagement with the Communist totalitarian police state.

Proponent of engagement don’t have the votes in Congress to remove the embargo, so they resort to executive action, some of it lawless and, of course, more conversations. As we have seen during the course of the last two years, if Republicans let their guard down, which they have, bad thing happen that go beyond the conversations.

James Williams who heads Cuba Engage — the latest group created to lobby U.S. policymakers to ease what remains of the U.S. embargo on Cuba — said in July that “it is important for U.S. companies to begin conversations now with their Cuban counterparts.” A month earlier in Iowa, Williams said the essentially the same thing: “[w]e’re hoping that we’re going to start a renewed conversation about the benefits for the people of Iowa” of trade with Cuba.

In The Hill newspaper, another supporter of easing economic sanctions on Cuba commented that resuming commercial air travel to Cuba helps increase the conversation“. And it is not just policy or political people who want to start conversations. Liberal academics at Florida International University in Miami, Florida hosted a program in March titled “President Obama’s Visit To Cuba: A Conversation.” The left-leaning Brookings Institute in Washington, DC hosted a conference way back in May 2012: “Balancing Preservation and Transformation in Cuba: A Conversation…”. The Carter Center hosted conversations too.

President Obama had a “frank conversation” with Cuban dictator Raul Castro about, ironically, human rights. I’m certain this was a short conversation. And, would you know it, pro-engagement types even have a theme song(s), Cuba: The Conversation Continues – a soundtrack produced by a Afro Cuban Jazz orchestra.

It was pure coincidence that these close to 60 musicians had arrived in Havana to record the album a few days before President Obama and dictator Raul Castro made simultaneous video statements about renewed diplomatic relations. Their video documentary of “The Conversation,” includes a segment recorded at the U.S. Interests Section the very same day of the December 17 announcement (video embedded)! Politics aside, the music is pretty good.

The conservations about conversations has even generated long-sought headlines such as this one in The Miami Herald, “Conversation on Cuba leaves out Miami’s once-mighty political guard.” While true that traditionally pro-freedom legislators were not part of the conversation with the totalitarian police state, nor was a majority of the U.S. Congress. Why would they ever be? For now, that dog does not hunt.

Yet while they were having their conversations, President Obama used his pen three times to amend the Cuban Assets Control Regulations to eviscerate the U.S. economic on Cuba. As a matter of law, some of these regulations are unlawful and the president has exceeded the power granted to him by the Congress. There is evidence that they cooked intelligence in order to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list – this critical move further eroded U.S. sanctions and, in the process, weakened U.S. security interests in the Americas. Each and every time Congress could’ve used its oversight power to stop him. They did not, so President Obama and his national security team plowed ahead.

President Obama’s flawed approach on Cuba talks – the Iran deal of the Western Hemisphere – will fail because it is based on the flawed premise the engagement will somehow lead to the land of political milk and honey in Cuba. This has been done before, in the 1970s. It failed then and it will fail again.

If anything, the new approach has made it easier for Raul Castro to reorganize that system and ensure succession to a new generation of communists and socialists. It will also lead to more violence and emigration, clearly things not in the U.S. national interest. So while civil society leaders and opposition groups in Cuba get locked up, killed, tortured, or exiled, most people in a position to do something about it – on the left and the right – keep having these conversations.

For supporters of engagement with Communist Cuba this means making one last-ditch effort this fall to secure additional sanctions-easing legislation in the Congress. I suspect they may need to pull out all the political stops — they came very darn close a few weeks ago — in order to fool convince at least 10 more Senators to secure a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, thereby clearing the way for legislative easing of the embargo. The good news is that they’ll need a whole lot of luck because the House is having another, totally different, conversation.

By the way these conversations are held on a variety of policy matters and topics, not just Cuba. As Jonah Goldberg from the National Review said earlier this summer, anytime that he hears people talking about having conversations, the first thought that pops into his head is “[l]et the next chapter of indoctrination begin.” Indeed.

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