5 Questions with Senator Flake on U.S.-Cuba Relations

March 31, 2014

This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series. Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week we spoke with Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ).  The Senator, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been an advocate of normalizing relations with Cuba since at least 2002 when, as a Member of the House of Representatives, he helped start the bipartisan Cuba Working Group which sought to end the embargo as well as travel restrictions.

1.  Senator Flake, thanks so much for joining us. Your positions on U.S.-Cuba relations probably did not win you any popularity contests within your caucus, but recent polling shows that a majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle now supports your positions.  How did you initially come to be convinced on the wisdom of normalizing relations with Cuba.

A pretty good indication to me of when a policy should be changed is when you’ve been trying it for 50 years and it still isn’t working. Beyond that – and I realize this sounds like a cliché – for me it’s always been about fundamental freedom. As a U.S. citizen, I shouldn’t face restrictions from our own government on where and when I can travel.  As I like to say, if someone is going to limit my freedom, it ought to at least be a communist.

2.  What would be the best way to change these policies: a unilateral and comprehensive change of policies, or a step-by-step reciprocal process in which Cuba makes changes in synch with ours, or some other method?

Making changes contingent on what Cuban officials would or wouldn’t do keeps their hand on the tiller of U.S.-Cuba policy. As we have seen in the past, they will take steps to ensure that they continue to have the boogeyman of the U.S. to blame for their ills. While I would certainly favor a comprehensive change in our policy, I suspect an iterative approach independent of Cuba’s actions is more realistic. Certainly their continued detention of former USAID contractor Alan Gross makes things more difficult. With respect to method, it is my hope that those here in the U.S. begin to see the price we pay for our current failed policy.

3.  Do you believe that the United States and Cuba have commonalities of interest?  Or do you support relaxation of relations as simply a method of limiting our self-inflicted foreign policy damage?

The simple answer is both. Like it or not, Cuba is a foreign nation 90 miles off our shores. Its sheer proximity means there will be issues – such as migration, environmental and maritime response, narcotrafficking, etc. – on which cooperation would provide an opportunity to further our own interests. In addition, our policy has caused self-inflicted wounds, including, for starters, restricted travel, lost economic opportunity, and the stain on our reputation and position in an important region of the world. I have heard Cuba described as “a 47,000 square mile blind spot in our security rear-view mirror.” While I take that more as a metaphor than any indication of a direct military threat, it remains a blind spot I would like to see removed.

4.  In a recent opinion piece that you co-authored with Senator Patrick Leahy, you wrote that “we should be taking every opportunity to flood Cubans with American interaction, with our ideas, with our young people.”  Do you believe that an opening to Cuba would subvert the communist system there?

Well, it certainly stands a better chance than anything we’ve done to date. In all seriousness, there are no better ambassadors for democracy, freedom and the benefits of capitalism than everyday Americans, and I see nothing but benefit in increasing contact between U.S. citizens and the Cuban people. Certainly an additional benefit would be for Americans to see the clear reality of what it’s like to live in a totalitarian dictatorship.

5.  What did you and Raul Castro drink when you met last year?

When our delegation was ushered into the room to meet Raul Castro, he immediately asked “Which one is the Mormon?” Funny, but no drinks were offered after that.

 

Image: Gage Skidmore, CC