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POLITICS-US: Obama Draws Line on Cuba, Latin America Policy

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 23 2008 (IPS) - In a major policy address on U.S.-Latin American relations, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, pledged Friday to immediately roll back key sanctions imposed by President George W. Bush against Cuba over the last several years and called for a “new alliance of the Americas” in which Washington’s southern neighbours would no longer be treated “as a junior partner”.

Speaking in Miami to the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), previously the most hard-line and influential of the anti-Castro Cuban-American Groups, Obama promised that, if elected, he “will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island” by Cuban Americans to “make their families (in Cuba) less dependent on the Castro regime.”

He said he would maintain the U.S. trade embargo against the island as “leverage” to secure reforms there, but, in contrast to Bush and his presumptive Republican foe in the November elections, Sen. John McCain, he would pursue “direct diplomacy” with Havana “without preconditions”.

“Now let me be clear,” he declared. “John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”

“There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And, as president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

Obama’s address, which followed speeches by both McCain and Bush on Cuba this week, was accompanied by the release by his campaign of a policy document entitled “A New Partnership for the Americas” which stressed that his approach to Latin America and the Caribbean would be based on a “programme of aggressive, principled and sustained diplomacy in the Americas with a focus on advancing freedom as Franklin Roosevelt described it: political freedom, freedom from want and freedom from fear.”

He said he would restore the White House post of “Special Envoy for the Americas” that Bush dismantled after taking office in 2001.

In addition to a renewed emphasis on diplomacy, both the document and the speech called for a “substantial increase” in U.S. aid to the region channeled in ways that would reduce what he called the region’s “back-breaking inequality” between rich and poor and promote what he called “bottom-up development”.

He stressed that Washington needed to do more to address insecurity in the region arising from drug trafficking and gang activity both by promoting the rule of law in the region and “cracking down on the demand for drugs in our own communities” and on the southward flow of guns, vehicles, and money imported from the U.S. by illicit enterprises.

Much of his speech was aimed at contrasting his approach of engagement with the region with the record of the Bush administration which, he charged, has created an effective “vacuum” into which “demagogues like (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez”, as well as European countries, China, and even Iran, have stepped.

“That is the record – the Bush record – that John McCain has chosen to embrace,” he declared. …Instead of engaging the people of the region, we’ve acted as if we can still dictate terms unilaterally,” he said, echoing the conclusions of a recent study by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

On Cuba, the subject of hard-line speeches by both Bush and McCain on the occasion of the island’s Independence Day earlier this week, Obama drew a sharp line between him and the Arizona senator on the question of both easing the embargo and engaging the government of President Raul Castro.

While McCain pledged to maintain the embargo intact until the Castro government released all political prisoners unconditionally, legalised all political parties, labour unions, and free media, and scheduled internationally monitored elections, Obama called for “a new strategy” beginning with rolling back Bush’s curbs on the freedom of Cuban Americans to travel to the island and send money to family members there.

He also indicated greater flexibility on taking additional steps toward normalisation of relations. “If you (Cuba) take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalising relations,” said Obama.

Obama’s approach stood in marked contrast to then-candidate Bill Clinton’s 16 years ago when he spoke before the CANF during the 1992 presidential campaign, according to Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). At that time, Clinton promised to tighten the embargo against Havana.

“Today, 16 years later, the likely Democratic candidate says it’s time to ease the embargo,” Thale told IPS. “What it reflects is how Florida domestic politics, and especially the Cuban-American community, has changed. Obama thinks he can win Cuban-American votes by making it easier for Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba to visit their families, and I think he’s right about that.”

“His call to allow Cuban Americans unlimited family travel and remittances to the island, while holding firm on the embargo, will probably appeal to younger Cuban Americans,” added Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a hemispheric think tank here. “There is a generational shift that Obama has tapped into on many issues, and he is trying to do the same on Cuba.”

While Obama was harsh in his description of Chavez and his influence, he has also called for Washington to “engage Venezuela”. The Illinois senator pledged to maintain U.S. support for “Colombia’s fight against the FARC” and its “right to strike terrorists who seek safe haven across its borders.”

At the same time, however, he said, Washington “must also make clear our support for labour rights, and human rights, and that means meaningful support for Colombia’s democratic institutions” which, he added, “we’ve neglected …for far too long.”

On trade, Obama said he “strongly reject(s) the Bush-McCain view that any trade deal is a good deal. We cannot accept trade that enriches those at the top of the ladder while cutting out the rungs at the bottom,” he said, adding that he opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) due to its lack of worker protections while he supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement because of their inclusion.

Earlier this week, McCain accused Obama and his remaining Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, of protectionism for opposing the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement which McCain said “would benefit American workers and consumers”.

“There’s nothing protectionist about demanding that trade spreads the benefits of globalisation, instead of steering them to special interests while we short-change workers at home and abroad,” Obama retorted Friday.

Except for his reservations about trade deals, Obama’s speech will be “well-received throughout the hemisphere, Shifter told IPS. At the same time, “it is useful to remember that President Bush also made a good speech on Latin America in his 2000 campaign, but his administration turned out to be a tremendous disappointment in the region. Latin Americans have learned to keep their expectations in check.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at

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