Cuban Politics: Panderfest Plays On

Maybe you saw it; maybe not. It was easy to miss.

It was another one of those official, rhetorically flourished, knee-jerk responses from Havana blaming Washington for something. More criticism of a democracy by a dictatorship. As such, it was given its proper media burial — less than three inches on page 8 of the Tampa Tribune’s Nation/World section last week. Right under another brief: “Kennedy Memorabilia Collector Dies.”

The item noted that the Cuban government was accusing the Bush administration of pandering to Cuban-American voters with some new, loophole-closing initiatives aimed at Havana.

President Bush had earlier ordered the Homeland Security Department to crack down on illegal U.S. tourism, limit heretofore-legal “people-to-people” visits and raise the number of Cubans eligible for legal admission to the United States. He had done so in a prominent Rose Garden address in front of an embargo-friendly audience, basking in the ostensible imprimatur of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the enthusiastic concurrence of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, a Cuban native. Powell and Martinez will be co-leading a commission to prepare for — and hasten the onset of — a sovereignty-challenged, post-Castro Cuba.

Havana, of course, blasted the administration for using Cuba as a forum to help secure a Florida election victory next year.

But here’s what hurts. It’s true. And it would have been no less true if Al Fox, Al Sharpton or Al Franken had said it. Forget the messenger on this one.

Just recall that in the last, mother-of-all-contested presidential elections, Bush won approximately 80 per cent of the 450,000 votes cast by Cuban-Americans in South Florida. In what could be another razor-thin, statewide margin, he wants to keep those anti-Castro votes in a Republican lock box.

When it comes to Cuba, American administrations have been gutless — but not guileless. The Bush administration is an extension of that pro-embargo, exile-community-panderfest of a policy, an especially absurd extension given that we are that much farther removed from any Red Menace threat of Fidel Castro and his Marxist acolytes.

In a post-9/11 world, Muslim fanatics and policies of pre-emption and unilateralism are our priority issues and gravest concerns. Dysfunctional relics of the Cold War aren’t relevant, save for narrowly focused, one-issue constituency, domestic political ends.

Treating Cuba as if it were still a Soviet outpost of geopolitical pertinence is beyond bewildering. Treating it as if it were all a matter of principle is hypocritical in the context of America’s relationships with former enemies and Mideast autocracies. It’s also mean-spirited and inhumane to all the innocent people adversely affected. Moreover, it’s counterproductive and stupid; engagement is more effective than isolation. What’s more, it’s venal.

In fact, heavy on the venality when it comes to presidential politics; Florida has 27 electoral votes and 1 million Cuban-Americans. Arguably, President Bush can’t be re-elected without Florida.

When Bush recently declared that he is tightening the screws on Castro, it played predictably well in South Florida and among the usual hardliners here in Tampa, who even objected to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba coming to town.

Bush wants the embargo maintained, American visitations reduced, Cuban immigrant visas increased and U.S.-government supported Radio and TV Marti expanded. Fewer American travelers, reasons Bush, would mean fewer dollars for Cuba’s $2-billion tourist industry. It is estimated that some 200,000 Americans annually visit Cuba, as many as a third illegally.

But the president phrased it in vintage Bushspeak. Fewer American visitors, he opined, would also mean fewer dollars “to prop up the dictator and his cronies” and to feed “the illicit sex trade, a modern form of slavery which is encouraged by the Cuban government.”

Sounds like Batista has returned to re-establish the brothels and casinos

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