Friday, December 26, 2014

El Obama's Scroogie

El Obama’s Scroogie

December 26, 2014

The great Cuban-born pitcher, Luis Tiant, had a live arm as a young man.  Scouted in his teens while playing for Cuban Juvenile League All-Star team in 1957, he was signed for the enormous sum of $150.00 per month, and then purchased by the Cleveland Indians in 1961, just in time to have hostilities between the United States and Cuba escalate.  He didn’t see his parents for fourteen years. 

In the late 1960’s, Tiant hurt his shoulder, and after some difficult years, realized that to continue pitching effectively he had to change. Out emerged El Tiante —different arm-angles, different release points, a curve, a scroogie, a little of this and a little of that, and, most famously, one of the most bizarre wind-ups seen since the Dead-ball era.  He literally turned his back on the hitter, regaining the time from his lost zip with the extra split second that the batter took to determine when the ball would actually be thrown.  He broke all the rules—no one was like him.  And he got results.

Barack Obama just pulled a little El Tiante.  He looked at all the rules about our relationship with Cuba, decided they weren’t putting wins up on the board, and came up with a new pitch from an entirely new delivery.  Obama decided to bring Cuba just a little bit in from the cold.

Was he right?  You have to pick through the issues very carefully.  Let’s start with the Castros. Good guys, lovers of liberty?  Not exactly.  If there has been any mellowing, we can stipulate they hide it very well.  

And, we can also stipulate that the Cuban émigrés who lost both political freedom and personal assets in Fidel’s La Revolución justifiably bear a long grudge. They ended up on the wrong side of a struggle between one form of dictatorship and another. One can’t blame them for resisting anything short of Castro’s complete capitulation and a triumphant return to the homeland.

It is a peculiarity of our history that we don't really understand revolution, even though we lived it.  We don’t get the concept that radical changes in leadership can lead to a complete reversal of fortune, both in the political and economic spheres.  It didn’t happen here.  We had some bloodshed, a bit of tar and feathering, many Tories left and were compensated by the Crown, but if someone had slept through 1776 and awoken 15 years later, they probably wouldn’t have been shocked at who had money and power.  Nor would they have been that shocked at the way we went about things—we emulated the Brits, except for keeping the King.

But Fidel really was “The World Turned Upside Down”.  So, any re-evaluation of Cuban policy begins with the unhappiness of the older generation of Cuban émigrés who lost it all and want to see no normalization.  You have to accept that their feelings are genuine, and legitimate, and must be taken into account.  But you then have consider that, with the passing of years, we have begun a changing of the guard—and a majority of younger Cuban-Americans support normalization.  Finally, we have to ask the most important, and frankly, the most uncomfortable question—what is in our national interest, and how does the present policy advance those goals?

We might as well start on the third by admitting something to ourselves.  American foreign policy is generally driven by self-interest.  George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” was a lovely concept, very high-minded, and we can even agree for the purposes of argument that he advanced it for noble reasons.  But it is totally impractical as a central rationale.  We don’t do it that way.  We pick our friends and our enemies to advance our interests.  In our hemisphere, we have, at various times, stood behind the Argentinian Junta, the dictatorships in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Duvalier’s Haiti.  There was cold calculation in this: first, support American business (Banana Republic wasn't always so stylish) and later as a Cold-War strategy.

What about Cuba?  Well, there is the very stirring Teddy Roosevelt charge up San Juan Hill, an epic in the Spanish American War of 1898.  And then, the far more prosaic Cuban “Constitution” we imposed, which allowed Uncle Sam to drop by on occasion to make sure that they maintained “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.”  As Thomas Donlan pointed out in a recent editorial in Barrons, we did these little ‘interventions’ in force and on a regular basis in the early part of the 20th Century.  Donlan went on to quote a Marine Major General who operated in Cuba and other Latin American countries “I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

“Racketeer for capitalism” isn’t exactly the type of sentiment that stirs the soul, but we are all past that, of course.  That leaves us basically with one remaining “national interest”; Cuba is infested with Commies.  Certainly true.  As is our largest foreign holder of US Treasuries, “Red” China, and as is a place like North Viet Nam, where we lost over 50,000 of our men not all that long ago.  

How about a strategic issue?  There was that nasty incident in 1962 where the Russians placed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. So, the embargo, which was imposed in 1960, and strengthened by a series of laws enacted afterwards, would seem to have some “existential” underpinnings.  Except that was more than 50 years ago, and we did about $30 Billion worth of trade with Putin’s kleptocracy in 2014, despite the rather limited embargo we’ve imposed on them recently for Ukraine.  Somehow, the logic seems to dim….

A rational person would acknowledge that more than 50 years of this have not produced the regime change we wanted, have not restored the now fairly ancient warriors of the expat community to their homes and assets, and frankly does us very little good in the world of diplomacy.  We look silly—everyone else quite happily smokes Cuban cigars—and the small-mindedness of this, coupled with an obvious double standard, diminishes the moral force of our arguments in the international forum on a host of other issues. 

All that being said, we have to acknowledge that there are still domestic political considerations. Those expat Cubans not only have a moral claim, but also still hold major sway, particularly in Electoral Voter-rich Florida.  And, while President Obama has considerable Executive Branch authority to conduct foreign relations, there is a web of at least half a dozen laws that would have to be amended by Congress.

What happens next? The President has already opened the door, and it remains to be seen whether Congress, soon to be completely controlled by the GOP, will either move things along, or try to slam it as hard as possible on his foot.  They have a few approaches they can take.  The most passive would be to refuse to alter existing legislation, but let the rest of Obama’s policy proceed.   Or, they could do as they threatened and defund any spending on enacting it.  Or, they could escalate even further by defunding and adding a condemnatory resolution.

This isn’t going to be easy. GOP has a real conundrum, because they are going to have reconcile what position they ultimately want to take it in plain view.  Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have roundly denounced Obama, but Rand Paul approves.  Donlan, by no stretch of the imagination a liberal, supports the new policy.  So, of all people, does George Will.  As does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent nearly 100% of its campaign contributions on Republicans in the last election cycle.  And any number of other Republican/Conservatives who deplore the fact that “Emperor” Obama did it, but quietly admit there really isn’t anything wrong with the concept, it’s just “the way” he did it, or that he wasn’t gracious enough to not do it and wait for one of theirs to get the credit. 

But, I like it.  I don’t care much about the political ramifications.  And I don’t know whether Obama is right on this, but he’s done something really fascinating.  He has taken a policy that has long demonstrated its ineffectual nature, and challenged it. In sclerotic Washington, that is worth something.

Old El-Obama threw a scroogie.  I'd like to see that pitch more.  From both parties.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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