WASHINGTON — Last week, President Barack Obama announced moves toward normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, a dictatorship that has been on the outs with the United States for 50 years.
Obama argued after five decades of a policy intended to isolate the Caribbean island nation, nothing has changed, calling the strategy “a failed approach.”
The changes seem to be mostly cosmetic, the exception being re-establishing diplomatic relations. But the gesture itself is a sign of an effort to deviate from the hardline stance of the last half century.
The announcement has already caused strife within each of the political parties. Almost immediately, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) criticized Obama. On the Republican side, potential 2016 presidential candidates Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) engaged in a public back-and-forth about the wisdom of opening Cuba — pitting the libertarian-leaning junior Kentucky senator against Rubio, the son of Cuban refugees and a vocal opponent of Obama’s new Cuba policy.
Those political battles will sort themselves out over the next two years of Obama’s presidency, with a more definitive idea of America’s long-term standing toward the Cuban regime coming in the term of the next president of the United States.
The Obama administration’s change of policy is problematic because it is somewhat premature and naïve in that it assumes the natural goodness of American ideals will win over the Cuban people and somehow that will be reflected by Cuba’s political leadership once the Castro brothers lose power or die.
It doesn’t, however, seem like this is a fight worth taking to the mattresses, even if you’re an ideological opponent of Obama or just if you’re vehemently anti-communist and anti-Castro.
There could be something in it for Mobile if U.S.-Cuba relations are indeed ever normalized.
It will probably not be in the form of Carnival Cruise Lines. That ship has sailed, literally. Bringing back a cruise line to the port city will require more changes locally and little to do with our national foreign policy.
By now, I’m sure it’s been pointed out there is a history between Mobile and Havana, going back to 1500s.
The pair are sister cities that feature identical statues of French-Canadian explorer and naval hero Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and a history of trade going back through the 18th century up until the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s.
Long before Obama’s announcement, companies with business interests tied to Mobile have been laying the groundwork for reopening U.S. relations with Cuba. It started with former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, who made multiple trips to the island nation and seemed to have a fascination with the — at the time unlikely — event of an end to the embargo.
In 2003, Dow, along with a delegation that included then-Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, RSA chief David Bronner, former Rep. Sonny Callahan and State Docks director Jimmy Lyons, put on a full-court press with a trip to Cuba seeking business relations.
Then-Mobile City Councilman Stephen Nodine was very outspoken against the Cuba trip, maintaining that Cuba was broke and that there was enough to deal with here stateside.
Cuba is still broke. And they’re still controlled by a communist regime, but the Castro brothers seem to be just barely hanging on.
In the event that the embargo with Cuba actually is lifted — a move that literally requires an act of Congress — Mobile will be a few steps ahead of other U.S. ports.
Rep. Bradley Byrne spoke out against Obama’s actions last week to the Alabama Media Group, arguing the president had made it more difficult by acting unilaterally. That’s a strikingly similar argument some proponents of immigration reform made regarding the president’s executive actions on immigration.
The difference is, however, that U.S.-Cuba relations weren’t on Congress’ radar until last week, whereas immigration has been a consistent theme in Congress for at least a decade.
For now, Mobile’s all-Republican congressional delegation doesn’t have much to gain in going aggressively after President Barack Obama for his Cuba policy. Let the outspoken opponents like Marco Rubios, Ted Cruzes (R-TX), and — on the House side — Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) take on Obama for overstepping his perceived constitutional authority.
If Rubio, who is the son of Cuban refugees, or any of the others holding power in Tallahassee or Washington involving the state of Florida want a higher bar for the opening of U.S.-Cuba relations, let them fight that fight. Floridians appear to have their reasons, be it for fear Cuba could undercut their sugar or agricultural commodity prices or the fact that there remain many constituents who fled Cuba.
For now, it’s not in Alabama’s direct interest to take up an ideological fight over Cuba policy when there are much more serious threats to the United States than the Castro regime.
Florida’s loss would be Alabama’s gain. The closest non-Florida U.S. port to Havana is Mobile, edging out Gulfport, Mississippi by 10 nautical miles and Savannah, Georgia by 50 nautical miles.
Inevitably, the Castro brothers will pass and the United States and Cuba will have to bury the Cold War-era hatchet. Whether that is in the next two years or longer, it would make sense to exercise discretion when sounding off about Cuba.