March 7, 2008

Steve Padilla

The 90-Mile Sandbox

Talking. We urge our children to do it from their earliest ages to resolve differences. Even in the sandbox, we counsel there is no harm attempting to understand where the other person is coming from, even if the answer just explains why they keeping throwing sand in our eyes. We teach this on the playground, at home and in school even when we as adults do not follow our own advice.

As our young grow up, we hope most learn that communication does not mean abandoning your principles, or forgetting how to fight well when you have to, and of course only in self-defense, and as a last resort. We preach that the effort must be made even when we know it may all still come to blows.

America as a nation has demonstrated a strange ability to ignore the common advice we give our own children when neighboring nations with whom we disagree happen to be weaker than we are and are located in the our own hemisphere. A backyard double-standard only increases perceptions of American arrogance, and gets in the way of rallying struggling peoples to free markets and democratic governments. We have shown a willingness to apply these simple lessons of life to our foreign policy only when the stakes are extremely high, and futures and even life and death hang in the balance.

Our outdated and failed policy of economic embargo and isolation toward Cuba is the closest and most obvious example of this bad approach. Today, Cuba poses no military of economic threat to the United States. Nearly a half-century of trade embargos and isolation have not brought about freedom, government reform, release of political prisoners or incentives to modernize the Cuban economy. And don’t forget to throw in at least a few assassination attempts, pills, hookers and the CIA. While Cuba is no direct threat, we are content today to ignore her. She no longer plays any real role in a cold war balance of power long gone. These measures have served only to give the Castro governments an enemy to rally around, something to help them solidify their hold on power.

The time will soon be upon us when the Castro’s run out of family members to get “elected” to power now that Fidel has passed the torch to Raul, and America should not miss the opportunity to make a fresh start. We have not hesitated to engage enemies and threats when war was in the balance, and we should do no less today with regard to a nation only 90 miles from our shores in time of peace.

Our domestic politics still demand that our politicians tread carefully. Presidential candidates are careful not to offend elements of the Cuban ex-patriot community in the all-important swing state of Florida. But today many in the Cuban-American community do not speak with the same voice, and many know that engagement is the fastest way to real change.

During the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962 we easily employed both the soft voice and the big stick. A quiet, back-door discussion lead to a secret agreement and resolved the crisis. The former Soviet Union would remove their missiles from Cuba, followed six months later by the removal of obsolete American missiles from Turkey, a NATO nation and ally. Meanwhile, the U.S. military blockaded Cuba and we came closer to nuclear war than at any other time in our modern history. But, we found a way to talk.

We negotiated in Paris for an end to the Vietnam War. We employed “triangular diplomacy” and Nixon went to communist China. We have engaged North Korea on the normalization of relations and development of nuclear power, and we spoke constantly to the Soviet Union with its thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at the continental U.S. Palestinians and Israelis talk even between periods of bloody conflict, and Sadat and Begin talked at Camp David with some success.

Cuba no longer holds the critical importance to our national security interests that it once did. But Cuba can be moved more quickly to join the community of free American states dedicated to democracy and opportunity. We only have to rise above the past and realize that our sandbox is only 90 miles long, and we can still talk to that fellow still throwing sand for our common good. Just the way we did with our once feared and mortal enemies.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org.

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