Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is Bill Richardson carrying a message from Obama?

Jose Marti Monument, Havana

With New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in Cuba, a diplomatic dance has got to be going on at some level. But whether it will lead to any change in U.S.-Cuba relations is difficult to know.
Governors do not wake up, decide to travel to Cuba and fly to Havana the next day. These kinds of trips require advance planning. That means talking with Cuban officials. Naturally, the Cubans will ask, 'Why would the governor of New Mexico like to come to Cuba?" So the two sides talk. That in itself can involve some negotiations over the purpose of the visit, the agenda and who the governor will see in Cuba.
Questions will come up about whether the governor will seek a meeting with Fidel and/or Raul Castro. Most VIPs aren't guaranteed an audience with Fidel Castro in advance. Underlings can't promise that kind of thing because, in the end, Fidel Castro does what he wants.
Richardson's prior contact with Fidel Castro could influence things, but that was more than a decade ago. Some members of Castro's inner circle have changed and I'd guess that his circle has grown smaller since he fell sick in July 2006. I'd be surprised if Castro agreed to a meeting in advance.
That said, I think it's possible that Richardson will see Fidel Castro and less likely he'll see Raul Castro.
Raul Castro is the president. A meeting with him heightens the expectations. That doesn't seem a likely step.
Sitting down with the former president, now retired, is less complicated.
"Make no mistake," one Cuban official told me earlier this summer, "Raul Castro is in charge."
Maybe Richardson is carrying some kind of private message from the Obama administration, or from Barack Obama himself. Or maybe not.
Back-door diplomacy with Cuba goes outside Richardson's role as governor. Conservative politicians could use it against him in the future.
Behind-the-scenes contact with Cuba could also hurt Obama. Career diplomats at the State Department might feel insulted and conservative talk radio hosts would have more reason to paint Obama as a radical.

Havana, 2009

To be sure, a vocal minority would go ballistic if Obama pushed for normalization of relations with Cuba. The majority of Americans may want that, but it's a can of worms for the president.
It's also complicated for Cuban officials, not all of whom want to end the Cold War just yet.
If the Richardson visit ends without a peep about diplomacy or U.S.-Cuba relations or the embargo that doesn't mean nothing happened.
If Richardson has a secret or private diplomatic agenda, it may not be made public for some time.
But if Cuba releases some political prisoners a month or two from now, we ought to consider whether Richardson played a role.
At the very least, someone in the Cuban government will try to pick Richardson's brain about the Obama administration and its plans for Cuba. That will happen early in the visit or maybe they've done it already. Any information would likely be relayed to Fidel or Raul Castro in case Richardson does secure a meeting with either one.
All this said, the socialist government doesn't embrace Richardson's past stance toward Cuba. He supports conditions on whether the U.S. lifts sanctions. He has said Raul Castro must release political prisoners "to show his sincerity."
Cuban officials have said they won't accept any conditions. They see the U.S. as the aggressor and believe the U.S. should unilaterally lift the embargo.
So even if Richardson wanted to make diplomatic inroads, it wouldn't be easy.
Richardson explained his stance toward Cuba in a Feb. 8, 2007 speech. First he talked about reducing poverty in Latin America, then he continued:
We need to strengthen energy cooperation in the region as well as we foster democracy and fair trade. And fostering democracy must include Cuba. We should reverse Bush policies restricting remittances and travel to visit loved ones – family reunification. Raúl Castro has started to make some overtures towards the United States. Let’s challenge him to show his sincerity by releasing Cuban political prisoners.
After the speech, someone asked if the U.S. should lift economic sanctions. Richardson said:
Our most important objective with Cuba right now is how can we positively influence the transition to democracy? That should be short term. Do we take the embargo out now? No. But what I would do is I would challenge Cuba. Raúl Castro is sending messages: We want normalization of relations. Okay, here’s something that you might do: release political prisoners – journalists, dissidents. Those are the steps that I would take.
But what I would also do is I would have a plan for that democratic transition. I hope the Bush administration has one. Because I believe as the Cuban people get more American contact and travel and all kinds of initiatives – I don’t understand the Bush administration saying, we’re going to cut down on travel – family travel and remittances. People-to-people contacts strengthen nations. So those are the steps that I would take. Taking the embargo off I believe is premature. I think there has to be a negotiation.
I would get leaders of foreign – former presidents of Latin America to help me visualize a policy for a post-Castro Cuba where you push for a democratic transition, where you push for democracy, where you push for fair elections, where you push for long-term viability of that country and reintegrate it into the Americas.
Sandra Levinson , who has been to Cuba more than 300 times, makes an interesting point about Richardson paying his own expenses. She wrote on Walter Lippmann's CubaNews group:
Why would Richardson find it necessary to pay his own expenses? Either he is going legally and as part of his job and therefore the state should be paying, or he is going illegally! He wouldn't be "legal" unless he is going as a government official. Or is he traveling as a private citizen using the farmers' "business" license? This should be clarified for everyone else who wants to spend money in Cuba! (just to point out the continuing absurdity of the OFAC regulations . . .)
I think Richardson may be paying his own way because Cuba is such a political lightning rod. Maybe, as it turns out, he's not feeling quite so bold. But at least he's making the trip. More American politicians should follow his example.

No comments: