U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor Could Make History

By all accounts, rookie U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa has hit the Capitol ground running. She’s rapidly becoming the poster pol for the new, fresh face of Congress, especially the House of Pelosi.

She was the first freshman to address the 110th Congress – and spoke on ethical reforms. She was one of nine Democrats appointed to the prestigious House Rules Committee – only the fifth freshman to be picked for that “Gatekeeper” committee in the last 30 years. Prior to that, she had been picked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to represent the 41-member freshman class on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee that, among other things, recommends committee assignments. She will also serve on the high-profile Armed Services Committee.

And her office – in the Cannon House Office Building — once housed first-year Massachusetts Congressman John F. Kennedy.

Castor, 40, says she plans to emphasize health care and education as top priorities.

Given the perfect storm of generation, gender, gumption and GOP implosion, she has a unique opportunity to make a difference in a hurry. But it’s a lot more than congressional karma.

So, here’s a suggestion if the newly-minted Congresswoman really wants to max out on impact and influence in these early days of the newly Democratic Congress. Think: Cuba.

Last month a 10-member (six Democrats, four Republicans) congressional delegation, led by Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and William Delahunt, D-Mass., traveled to Havana and met with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and other senior officials. The purpose: to grease the skids for a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations.

It’s a given that it’s coming. Only its timing — now or soon — is the great unknown.

The delegation had hoped to meet with Raul Castro, the Cuban defense minister who took over from his brother and became provisional leader six months ago. In a major speech last month, Raul Castro indicated a willingness to open negotiations with the U.S. on an equal and fair footing. Raul is Fidel Castro’s constitutionally-designated successor – and it looks increasingly likely that his permanent succession is imminent.

But the congressional delegation-Raul Castro meeting never happened.

Insiders speculate that a possible reason is that some delegation members had spurned opportunities to meet with Fidel Castro during previous trips.

Others feel that Raul — his relative “pragmatism” notwithstanding — is holding out for someone with no baggage. Someone who would better symbolize a clear break from the Cold War atavism that is America’s relationship with Cuba. Someone clearly not hostage to the interminable, South Florida exile-community veto over U.S. foreign policy regarding Cuba. Indeed, someone from FLORIDA.

That someone should be Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

The door of opportunity is ajar, and the window of destiny is open for the right overture in the right context. This is not a Cindy Sheehan moment.

If the Democrats are truly looking to position themselves as an alternative to business as usual, a dramatic breakthrough with Cuba would underscore this new reality. Arguably more than ethics evolution, a phased-in minimum-wage hike or cover-your-backside positions on Iraq would.

In fact, a pro-active move on Cuba would be more than politically propitious. Trade, oil exploration, drug interdictions, hurricane assistance, travel, immigration, family reunions and a stable post-Fidel Cuba would all be on the table.

Not, however, on the table: pre-conditions that treat Cuba as less than a sovereign country – regardless of what we think of its failed Marxist dictatorship. That means amending the dogmatic Helms-Burton Act. Recall that America never held out for democratic enlightenment in order to normalize relations with China or Vietnam. Globalization produces its own change dynamic, however imperfect.

Moreover, a rapprochement with Cuba has implications that transcend bi-lateralism.

It would make it a lot harder for America’s enemies — and growing legions of international skeptics — to continue to portray the U.S. as an arrogant hegemon with less-than-noble motives around the globe. As long as there is an inexplicably inhumane, imperious Cuban embargo, there is an even bigger cloud over America’s credibility as an agent of good in the world. Even the conservative Cuban-American National Foundation has called for an end to U.S. restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba.

Then there’s the counterproductive, geo-political irony in continuing to isolate Cuba.

There are no incentives to liberalize in isolation. There never are.

And there are certainly no incentives for Cuba to become less dependent on Venezuela’s menacing socialist, the oil-endowed Hugo Chavez. More foreboding is Chavez’s increasing common cause with (Hezbollah-supporting) Iran – and efforts to prod Cuba into closer ties with Tehran. Anybody want a strategic comfort zone 90 miles off our coast for the apocalyptic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

There are a lot of reasons why the U.S. should be talking to – and not at – Raul Castro. Blatant American self-interest comes most readily to mind.

Congressional Democrats want to emphasize — and highlight — that this is a new day in Washington. Well then, seize it.

Think outside the box canyon that is Little Havana – and beyond the eroding clout of a few hard-line Cuban-American U.S. representatives.

And, to be sure, somebody – in the pursuit of doing the right thing – is going to make history. Might as well be one of our own. Tampa, as we well know, is not Miami. We have history; not hate.

And Kathy Castor has never seemed shy when it comes to principle.

You go, Congresswoman.

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