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Ending an embarassment

peterson MARTIN

The announcement that the United States and Cuba are attempting to normalize relations is over half a century overdue. For over half a century, we have attempted to change the course of the Cuban government through denying them diplomatic recognition, enforcing a trade embargo and numerous other activities. The thought has been that these actions would steer Cuba away from its communist form of government and get rid of the Castros.

So after 54 years, how has that strategy worked? The U.S. has gone through ten presidents in that time. In Cuba, the Castros are still in power and their government is still communist. At the same time, U.S. businesses have been denied the opportunity to profit from doing business in a county less than 100 miles from our shores and our citizens have been denied the freedom to freely travel there.

Obama’s decision will draw far louder cries of criticism that the previous decisions of Nixon with China and Clinton with Vietnam, which is troubling. In the case of both China and Vietnam, we had fought wars with them that cost tens of thousands of American lives. With Cuba, we lost four U.S. citizens in the U.S. launched Bay of Pigs invasion.

The Marco Rubios of Congress will rant that the Cuban government is guilty of having confiscated private property. Absolutely correct. But China, Vietnam, Russia, Mexico and other governments we recognize have done the same. They will also say that the Cuban government is a repressive government with respect to many of its people. Once again, correct. But we do business with numerous others governments guilty of the same charge, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Russia, Vietnam and many others.

Shortly after President Obama held his news conference announcing his decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba, Florida Senator Marco Rubio appeared before the TV cameras. He gave all appearances of being in shock over the situation. And with good reason. He and a number of other politicians have built careers based on their opposition to the Cuban government. In most instances, they have represented states or congressional districts with a high percentage of Cuban-American citizens.

But times have changed. While the older generations of Cuban Americans – those who had lived in Cuba and immigrated to the United States – may still support things like the trade embargo, public sentiment has changed among the younger generations.

The U.S. maintains a fairly large interests operation in Havana. It will require little to simply change its name from an interests section to an embassy. Initially, confirmation of an ambassador will likely run into a roadblock, but with time that will also change.

Obama can take most of his actions to normalize relations via executive action. But the trade embargo is set in law and will require congressional action to be lifted.

Don’t expect that to happen any time soon. However, when a major effort comes to remove the embargo, it will likely come from the business sector, seeking to open new markets for their products. The petroleum industry will also likely make a push in an effort to gain offshore exploration rights from the Cuban government. Another U.S. economic sector that will make that push will be the resort and tourism industry. Cuba has huge potential for tourism and right now European companies are doing most of that development in Cuba. Unfortunately, the longer the U.S. drags its feet on lifting the trade embargo, the more likely it is that all of the prime beach front property will be developed by interests from other countries.

Two Idaho political leaders have taken an active role in past years in trying to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Butch Otter was one of the leading proponents of normalizing relations as a member of House. As governor, he has led a trade mission to Cuba. Larry Craig was one of the leading proponents in the Senate where he sponsored legislation to help open the doors for the export of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.

When Congress reconvenes in January, Idaho’s Senator Jim Risch will become the number two Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This is the committee that will likely be the focal point of congressional efforts to normalize U.S. Cuban relations. His Republic colleagues on the committee include two of the most vocal Senate members with respect to U.S. foreign policy with Cuba and they also represent the two extremes on the issue.

Marco Rubio of Florida is a Cuban American and can be expected to pull out all of the stops to derail normalization of relations. Jeff Flake of Arizona has long been a leading proponents of normalizing relations.

As a member of the House, he was often joined at the hip with Butch Otter on this issue. He has made numerous trips to Cuba and was on the flight that brought Alan Gross, the imprisoned American, back to the United States.

Risch has nothing to gain by becoming an ally of the pro-embargo group. In fact, he and his Idaho constituents could have a lot to gain with normalized relations by opening the road for new markets for Idaho products, such as agricultural commodities and fertilizer. Hopefully, as congress begins to deal with this issue, he will consult with the two Idahoans who know this issue inside out – Butch Otter and Larry Craig. Better yet, I hope that Otter and Craig have already been pro-active on this issue and have already been in touch with him.

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