January 31, 2013
Ricardo Herrero, The Hill
Chuck Hagel has long been an outspoken critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Since President Obama nominated him to serve as Pentagon chief, hardline defenders of the status-quo have been quick to accuse the former Senator from Nebraska of supporting legislation that would allegedly provide a lifeline to the Castro leadership. One of them, pro-embargo lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone, even serves on the board of an outside group named Americans for Strong Defense, whose aim is to thwart Hagel’s nomination through paid TV attack ads.
However, as the Senate prepares to question Hagel on his position on Cuba, it should be aware of an incredible irony: Hagel has been accused of being “soft on Castro” for espousing views that are almost entirely in sync with those of the Island’s leading pro-democracy advocates.For example, Hagel and Cuba’s leading democracy advocates agree that U.S. isolationist policies have only undermined our influence in the island and benefited the Cuban government. As Josh Rogin recently noted on Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog, Hagel “has said the trade embargo on Cuba ‘isolates us, not Cuba,’ and voted several times to ease parts of it. Hagel has also stated that ‘if you start opening trade with Castro and opening a dialogue and a relationship, I think that cuts directly against his interests,’ and doesn’t believe such a move would merely strengthen the power of Castro’s regime. ‘That's the same tired argument that everybody uses.’”
It just so happens that in 2010, 74 of Cuba’s leading pro-democracy advocates, including acclaimed blogger Yoani Sanchez, former political prisoner and independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, former hunger striker Dr. Guillermo Fariñas, and founding members of the Ladies in White Gisela Delgado and Miriam Leiva, signed and sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives that said, in part, “we are sure that isolation does not foster relationships of respect and support for people and groups around the world who are in favor of democratic changes in Cuba.”
Yoani Sanchez, whom Senator Marco Rubio has recognized as one of Cuba’s “brave truth tellers” has repeatedly called for the lifting of the U.S. embargo, most notably in 2011 when she said: “the five decade prolongation of the ‘blockade’ has allowed every setback we've suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects…To make matters worse, the economic fence has helped to fuel the idea of a place besieged, where dissent comes to be equated with an act of treason. The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade.”
Oscar Espinosa Chepe has also argued that Helms-Burton’s blanket sanctions have only served: "to give the Cuban government an alibi to declare Cuba a fortress under siege, to justify repression and to (pass) the blame for the economic disaster in Cuba."
They also share similar views on trade between the U.S. and Cuba. As Hagel stated in 2008, “On Cuba, I've said that we have an outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy...It's always been nonsensical to me about this argument, 'Well, it's a communist country, it's a communist regime.' What do people think Vietnam is? Or the People's Republic of China? Both those countries are WTO members. We trade with them. We have relations. Great powers engage...Great powers are not afraid. Great powers trade.’”
The signatories of the Letter by the 74 would seem to agree: “we value the experience of all the western countries, including the United States, who favored opening and trade with all the countries of the former Eastern Europe.”
Sanchez went further in a 2009 blog post by noting that “it is these [U.S.] trade restrictions, so clumsy and anachronistic in my judgment, that can be used as justification both for the setbacks in productivity and to repress those who think differently.”
Even Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the largest independent human rights organization in Island, the Cuba Commission for Human Rights, has said that “the more American citizens in the streets of Cuban cities, the better for the cause of a more open society.”
So it would seem that if defenders of the status-quo are going to attack Senator Hagel for his positions on Cuba, they would also have to reconsider their support for those “brave truth tellers” in the trenches who risk their lives on a daily basis for the cause of a free Cuba.
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