Time to grow up on the Cuba issue

There is scarcely a more foolish and needlessly punitive foreign policy in global politics than that employed by the United States in relation to Cuba. Despite it being twenty years this November since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the small island nation a few hundred kilometres off the coast of Miami is still being treated by the United States as public enemy number one. While it is lamentable that the hegemony of the brothers Castro does continue, the scale of the measures that the US continues to impose on its relationship with Cuba is out of all proportion and no longer serves any logical purpose or retains any moral support.

President Obama was quite cagey on the Cuba issue in the lead-up to his election last year. It is fascinating that he overtly talked up the possibility of having face-to-face discussions with Mahmoud Ahmaninejad of Iran and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, but Cuba received no such special mention or attention. Could it be that the prevalence of ex-Cold War combatants in US government circles and the Democratic Party have made Cuba something of a taboo foreign policy issue? Only historical hackles and an ideological war some twenty years buried would seem to stand in the way of these two nations forging a new, realistic relationship for the twenty-first century.

Promisingly, President Obama has just announced a lift of the ban on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. This move offers some hope for the future, but it does seem a curiously restricted step forward. It is a signal that Washington is not offering a carte blanche, but is expecting some action from Cuba in return before it will move to consider lifting the trade embargo.

It is also a signal that the United States is still very worried about “saving face”. Perversely, a change in policy now would be seen by many Americans (particularly the conservatives) as some sort of backdown or an admission of failure. Still, I would have thought that after all these years, the United States would be less concerned about “saving face” than kickstarting a useful new economic relationship with a country literally screaming for American imports. When one considers the economic orthodoxy on free trade that is celebrated by both the Democrat and Republican parties, and all of the tin-pot dictators the world over whose countries the United States is happily trading with, its position on Cuba seems even more ridiculous. That’s because it is.

Come on Barack, do something about it. This is one of those issues on which just a little effort and a little willpower could go a long way towards forging a real and lasting achievement for this fledgling administration.

It is the farewell kiss, you dog?

With the United States on the threshold of a fresh new political era, it’s probably fair to say that interest in American politics is at an all-time high amongst the hoi polloi. Even Kochie and Mel, those partially unwitting boosters of Australia’s Prime Minister, are kickstarting their day at 3AM this Wednesday morning to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. Obama, unfortunately for the Democratic Party, is on a fifth day wicket. The economic situation is dire, and expectations are positively evangelical. Expectations can do terrible things to a politician, and it goes without saying that the coming Obama Administration is probably going to turn out a little more like the second coming of the Clinton Administration than the Second Coming. With a bit of luck though, and a little bit of visionary razzle dazzle, President Obama will keep the majority of his supporters with him during his first term in office, four years that will no doubt present a few challenges beyond even this charismatic Senator from Chicago.

As the Obama Administration begins and the Bush Administration draws to a merciful close, we might well reflect upon one more little footnote to this very American story. Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at a surprisingly agile President Bush last month in Baghdad, is seeking asylum in Switzerland after being charged with “aggression against a foreign head of state during an official visit”, a charge that apparently can result in up to 15 years imprisonment under Iraqi law. One would have to think that any prospective penalty for al-Zaidi would be significantly less than the maximum penalty, given the rather bemusing nature of the attack, but the track record of the Bush Administration and its allies on justice issues leaves lingering doubts in one’s mind.

When the natural moral order of things has been dismantled, and humankind’s most self-evident rules of right and wrong have been obscenely violated by a cabal of individuals at the centre of power, one can feel all of a sudden that the normal carriage of justice could run riotously off the rails anywhere, at any time. There may be Islamic terrorist groups out there acting like unconscionable barbarians – and they are to be unequivocally condemned – but I’m not sure the Western political tradition has done itself very proud in recent years by shifting its methods and motives by inches in a sometimes similar direction. Probably the top priority of President Barack Obama in a foreign policy sense is going to be returning his nation to the moral high ground that the world so desperately needs the United States to be standing on.