President Obama will say tonight at the Summit of the Americas that "the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba. I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."
According to prepared remarks provided by the White House, President Obama will tonight say that he is "prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues. Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."
As the U.S. and Cuba begin the delicate dance of diplomacy — with President Obama relaxing some restrictions on commerce, travel, and travel policy regarding Cuba, and Cuban President Raoul Castro saying his government is willing to talk about "everything" with the US including political prisoners — it’s worth noting that President Obama did not always hold the same position in favor of upholding the US embargo against Cuba, which is his current view.
On Jan. 20, 2004, at Southern Illinois University, then-state senator Barack Obama voiced support for ending the US embargo against Cuba, which began six months after he was born.
"I think it’s time for us to end the embargo in Cuba," the then-Senate candidate said. "And I think that we have to end it because if you think about what’s happening internationally our planet is shrinking, and our biggest foreign policy challenge — and it fits directly into the battle on terrorism and it fits into issues of trade and our economy — is how we make sure that other countries, in developing nations, are providing sustenance for their people, human rights for their people, a basic structure of government for their people that it’s stable and secure so that they can be part in a brighter future for the entire planet.
"And the Cuban embargo has failed to provide the source of raising standards of living and it has squeezed the innocents in Cuba," Mr. Obama continued, "and utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro, who’s now have been there since I was born. So, it’s time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed."
Some time between then and his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama changed his view and came to support the embargo, though as early as August 2007 he was talking about lifting President Bush’s restrictions on family members being able to travel to visit relatives in Cuba, and to send them sizable remittances.
"I will maintain the embargo," Mr. Obama said in a speech in Miami on May 23, 2008. "It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy."
Mr. Obama’s evolution of opposing to maintaining the embargo was made within the context of a total re-evaluation of the US policy towards Cuba: he argued that the embargo would best enable the U.S. to encourage changes in Cuban policy.
In Pendleton, Ore., on May 18, 2008, then-Sen. Obama said that with Fidel Castro stepping down, "I think it’s a good time for us to reassess what our Cuba policy is. Cuba has been a dictatorship, it has suppressed a free press, free exercise of religion. Obviously there are a lot of Cubans who moved to the U.S. and still have horrendous memories of the Communist takeover there."
"On the other hand," he continued, "our Cuba policy was shaped when I was born and it basically hasn’t changed for the last 46 years and it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked. People aren’t freer in Cuba, there hasn’t been an opening or a modernization of Cuba. And so when something doesn’t work, if you keep on doing something over and over again expecting a different result – that’s the definition of madness."
The White House did not answer repeated questions as to why Mr. Obama’s position on the embargo changed.
Obviously, one could see it in terms of a shift in strategy: what’s the best way to convince the Cubans to change their oppressive policies?
Others might argue that crass political politics — wanting to win over Cuban-American votes so as to win Florida — might have played a role as well, in the same way opponents of ethanol subsidies find religion on the subject on their way to Des Moines.
It’s worth pointing out that Mr. Obama lost the Cuban-American vote to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., though the Democrat won Florida, disproving the prevailing political wisdom that Florida can’t be won without that key voting bloc.
– Jake Tapper, Eduardo Sunol, and Sunlen Miller