Sunday, March 20, 2016

Obama's Cuban revolution

In Havana, the president blazes a path for Cuba's future and his own.


By Edward-Isaac Dovere
Politico
March 20, 2016


HAVANA — President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba is a metaphor for his foreign policy and a potential glimpse into his post-presidency, all embodied in one landing here at José Martí International Airport on Sunday afternoon.

With his decision to move toward normalized relations with the Castro regime, Obama forced a geopolitical transformation, a rare instance when a president can start and nearly finish so complete a change in foreign policy within his term in office. And he did it less with a pen and a phone than with a series of prods and the force of his personality.

The Cuba reopening is a snapshot of Obama’s approach the past seven years: an analytic rethinking of America’s interests and a pragmatism about how to achieve them, pursued despite political resistance and without much cooperation from Congress. Typically, it’s sparked a debate between supporters who see him breaking through calcified thinking and critics who say he’s willingly overlooked facts in order to gamble with abhorrent leaders for what would at best be shortsighted gains.

The detractors point to the dissidents arrested and rearrested in the days leading up to this trip, all while the Castro government has pushed back on the idea that Obama will be able to use the trip to get it to change. On the contrary, they’ve said, Obama’s arrival is proof that the human rights abuses they’ve been accused of must not exist, because otherwise he wouldn’t have come.

But even that attests to the force of Obama’s presence. In Havana, the big deal isn’t just that an American president is visiting again, the first time since Calvin Coolidge arrived by battleship in 1928. It’s not that Air Force One has landed.

It’s that Obama walked out. And that’s a power that will remain with him.

“He can transcend barriers in a way that a lot of American leaders can’t, because he’s a very attractive, approachable figure in the developing world,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state under George W. Bush, adding, “There are a lot of barriers that still need to be broken down.”

Obama hasn’t gotten deep into post-presidency planning, in part because he’s reluctant to look past next Jan. 20, and in part because every time the White House has neared a lull there’s been a sudden crisis, like the sudden fight for the Supreme Court that’s consumed him just as the focus was fully shifting to the presidential race. People close to him inside and outside the White House expect he’ll work on a book, with a likely focus on race, and that My Brother’s Keeper, his project aimed at elevating black youths, and a return to organizing basics will be major focuses of his domestic work.

The international element of Obama’s post-presidency is further from taking shape, but he’s hinted at thoughts, like when he openly mused on his homecoming trip to Kenya last year about being able to return when he’s out of office, traveling more freely without as much Secret Service presence and engaging more widely without everything he does having the weight of official United States policy.

Those who’ve watched Obama in office say this trip to Cuba is exactly what they expect him to be doing more of — a post-presidency arguably closer on the world stage to that of Jimmy Carter’s than to Bill Clinton’s, but with a resonance and ambition beyond that of a white man from Georgia who was sent home from the White House after four years.

“He’s the most popular political leader in the world outside of the U.S., with a star power, a megapower that will enable him to play important roles in conflict resolution, rescuing political prisoners and peacekeeping and dealing with different countries,” said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and governor of New Mexico and the only candidate in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries who agreed with Obama then when he talked about changing tactics on Cuba.

“I see the two most important foreign policy players in the post-Obama presidency as Obama and the pope,” Richardson added.

In a country that had largely mastered the news blackout, Cubans knew relatively little about Obama’s election. That was before the December 2014 speech he made announcing the reopening of the relationship, broadcast here on Cuban television, or the speech he made in April 2015 at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, when he followed up his meeting and handshake with Raúl Castro by delivering a soft-sell speech about outreach, unlike Castro’s usual anti-American podium-banger (Cuban television carried both, so Cubans got to see the contrast themselves).

Survey firm Bendixen & Amandi, which hired Cubans to conduct the only independent poll of the island, showed that in the months afterward, Obama’s popularity was high, with 80 percent giving him positive marks. His popularity was at 83 percent among people 18-49 and 75 percent among people over 50. Forty-seven percent had a positive opinion of Raúl Castro, while 48 percent had a negative opinion. Fidel Castro was at 44 percent approval, 50 percent disapproval. The only other person in the poll to match Obama’s numbers: Pope Francis.

“Obama they saw as the personification of the catalyst for a desperate desire for change that they have,” said pollster Fernand Amandi.

Obama will be looking to harness all that goodwill over the next two days, trying to make normalization the irreversible reality here and back in Washington.

Cuba’s Seventh Communist Party Congress is scheduled for April, with real political and economic reforms seeming possible and Raúl Castro’s promised end of his presidency in 2018 in sight.

And to the already publicly supportive members of Congress who joined this trip, but more importantly to those back home who’ve privately indicated support and those who say they’ll never stop fighting the embargo, Obama’s point is clear: The question is only when, not if.

That’s what happens when a second-term president brimming with confidence is a guy who was a second-year law student at Harvard when the Berlin Wall came down, didn’t get to Washington until 2005 and was not in the capital for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or their aftermath.

“He is a younger president; he is a president who has wanted to do things differently,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who’s part of the delegation. “It encapsulates a president who campaigned on change, and there’s no better example of a failed old foreign policy that needed to be changed.”

It’s because the Cuba policy fits into Obama’s overall approach that some of the detractors are complaining. As with the Iran deal, they see Obama as too willing to sign on with dictators for the sake of racking up an imaginary accomplishment that they say will cost America in the end.

And that’s not even getting into the symbolism of being on the same island as Guantánamo Bay. Obama’s failure to close the detention facility at the U.S. Navy base there has disappointed his own party while enraging Republicans by telegraphing that he’ll close it on his own authority before he finishes. (American officials have insisted that it’s not on the table at all in discussions during this trip.)

“This is the president’s South Africa moment, except that it’s on the wrong side,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a leading opponent of movement on Cuba.

There’s much more optimism about this trip for others, including some members of the House Republican Conference: In one big move, people say, Obama’s pulling off a pivot to Latin America to match the pivot to Asia that he’s been working on for his entire presidency. With Cuba off the table, goes the thinking, the left in Latin America will be deprived an easy scapegoat in Washington, and with 4 million Americans expected to visit the island annually as soon as the bans are lifted, a lot of money is about to begin flowing.

“I have a lot of my colleagues saying, ‘What do we get?’” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), who’s also traveling with the president and leading the effort with Klobuchar to end the embargo. “What we’re getting is a resetting of our relationships throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

“If we’re going to continue to look backward,” Emmer added, “there’s a Russia or China or, God forbid, Iran; others are willing to step into this void.”

But Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass urged against making too much out of the opening to Cuba, or how it reflects Obama’s larger philosophy of engagement and breaking convention.

“It may work here for a unique set of reasons, but when he tried it in the Middle East from the Cairo speech on, it didn’t work — on steroids,” Haass said.

Nonetheless, Haass said, for all the history of Cuba in the world and the American psyche, at this point the island nation is so isolated politically and economically that Obama’s got leeway.

“Even if this approach doesn’t succeed,” Haass said, “it’s not as if it’s an enormous geopolitical risk.”


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Obama's Cuban revolution

Anti-Trump Forces Favoring Cruz Over Kasich

By Caitlin Huey-Burns
Real Clear Politics
March 18, 2016


By winning his home state of Ohio and all its 66 delegates earlier this week, John Kasich helped keep hope alive for the anti-Donald Trump forces in the GOP. But it's not as though the party is coalescing around the governor.

With Kasich's path to the nomination literally impossible via the primaries—even winning 100 percent of the remaining delegates would not bring his total to the needed 1,237—some in the party are choking back their distaste and backing Ted Cruz. Though the Texas senator also has an uphill, but not undoable, climb to the nomination, he is viewed by some in the party as the last, best vehicle to prevent Trump from garnering the necessary delegates.

This dynamic came into its clearest focus yet when South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham—who last month joked about murdering Cruz on the Senate floor—announced on Thursday that he is backing his upper chamber colleague and hosting a fundraiser for him in Washington during the AIPAC conference next week.

"He's certainly not my preference, but he's a reliable Republican, conservative, which I've had many differences with," Graham told CNN. Graham said Kasich is the most electable general election candidate, but "I just don't see how John gets through the primary. This is an outsider year, and he is an insider."

Graham's endorsement marked a stunning development in the race, even by this presidential cycle's standards, and an acknowledgement that options for preventing a Trump nomination are nearly on life support. Earlier this year, Graham likened choosing between Trump and Cruz to deciding whether to be shot or poisoned. Either option, he said, leaves you dead.

The South Carolina senator has now picked his poison. Aside from his personal dislike for Cruz, Graham has vehemently disagreed with his Senate colleague on foreign policy—a subject that played a key role in the hawkish Graham's decision to run for president himself. Last month, Graham said Cruz is "worse" than President Obama on foreign affairs. He has also publically criticized Cruz for being too conservative on abortion rights by not allowing exceptions, and has called him an "opportunist."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who made a splash in the GOP presidential race by endorsing Marco Rubio right before the state's primary last month, also said she would support Cruz now that her first choice has left the race. Haley has been a vocal opponent of Trump's rhetoric and approach. “My hope and my prayer is that Senator Cruz can pull through this and that he can push through and really get to where he needs to go,” Haley told reporters at her state capitol.

Rubio, who had been most critical of Cruz during this election cycle, particularly on national security, told Minnesota supporters on Wednesday that the Texas senator is the "only conservative left in the race."

For his part, Cruz now views Kasich as a menace, after having paid him little mind this entire cycle. "The longer Kasich stays in the race, the more it benefits Donald Trump," he said. Cruz believes he can overcome the real estate tycoon in a one-on-one contest, or at least prevent him from winning the requisite delegates, and is eyeing a victory in the caucus state of Utah next Tuesday.

Cruz's road, however, is also narrowing. After significant wins last Tuesday, Trump has 673 delegates to Cruz's 411. Trump appears well positioned in the winner-take-all contest of Arizona next Tuesday, where 58 delegates are at stake. Wisconsin will host another highly competitive winner-take-all primary on April 5 with 42 delegates up for grabs. In an apparent slight to Cruz, Kasich is planning campaign events in Utah and is running a television ad there.

Despite the odds stacked against him, Kasich insists he’s undeterred – and well positioned to win at a contested convention that will be held in his home state. "Neither of those guys can win a general election, so maybe they're spoiling it for the Republican Party and for the conservative movement," he said at a campaign stop at Villanova University in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Pennsylvania will host a winner-take-most contest on April 26, and Kasich hopes his Rust Belt sensibilities will translate well there.

Meanwhile, a group of conservative activists and operatives met in Washington on Thursday to plot a way to prevent Trump from securing the nomination. The anti-Trump movement has intensified, but still remains fractured, divided over coalescing around Cruz or aiming for a contested convention—or even a third party bid.

"We call for a unity ticket that unites the Republican Party," wrote Erick Erikson, who participated in the meeting. "We intend to keep our options open as to other avenues to oppose Donald Trump.


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