One Major Difference Between Clinton and Obama? Their Records On Cuba
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It is often suggested that there is not much difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton when it comes to the stands they have taken as senators. And on the question of how the U.S. relates to Cuba -- an issue that has suddenly moved to the forefront with the news that Fidel Castro is stepping down as the leader of the Caribbean nation -- the candidates can sound similar.
When word came of Castro's move, Obama said the Cuban president's decision to hand power to his younger brother "should mark the end of a dark era in Cuba's history. ... Fidel Castro's stepping down is an essential first step, but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba."
Clinton said, "The United States must pursue an active policy that does everything possible to advance the cause of freedom, democracy and opportunity in Cuba."
That's reasonably standard language for presidential candidates talking about Cuba.
But this is a case where the records behind the words really do tell different stories.
During their shared tenure in the Senate, and over the course of the current campaign, Obama and Clinton have taken different stands and sent distinct signals.
They have even voted differently on an issue that has provided a regular test of congressional sentiments regarding U.S. policy toward Cuba.
When the Senate has debated proposals to strip funding for TV Marti -- the always-troubled initiative to beam U.S. produced television programming into Cuba, which in turn jams the signal -- Obama has sided with those who argue that the $200-million propaganda campaign wastes money and good will.
Breaking with the powerful anti-Castro lobby in the Cuban-American community, the senator from Illinois voted twice to cut off TV Marti funding.
In contrast, Clinton voted to maintain TV Marti funding.
Last year, The Washington Post wrote that, "Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the senator's opposition to TV Marti was primarily about cost. But within Florida's large Cuban exile population, one of the most powerful voting blocs in the state, Clinton's and Obama's stances ally them with distinct groups: the older hard-liners and a younger, more progressive group of second-generation Cuban Americans and more recent immigrants whose numbers are growing."
Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen, one of the ablest analysts of campaigning on issues related to Cuba, says, "(Clinton) is going with the status quo." In contrast, argues Bendixen, "(Obama) is with the position of change."
It is not just on the question of funding for TV Marti that Obama is distinguished from Clinton.
The senator from Illinois says he wants to ease U.S.- Cuba travel restrictions, while the senator from New York would maintain the harsher policies imposed by the Bush administration. Obama went so far as to outline his position in an August, 2007, opinion piece written for the Miami Herald, in which he argued that, "Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grassroots democracy on the island." As a result, he said, "I will grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island."
In that same article, Obama also raised the possibility of opening bilateral talks with a post-Castro government.
Those are hardly radical positions, and Obama is no friend of Castro's. He's criticized the outgoing Cuban leader over human rights concerns and said today that, "Cuba's future should be determined by the Cuban people and not by an anti-democratic successor regime."
But the Illinois senator's relative moderation on travel and diplomatic fronts has drawn criticism from several of his opponents, including Clinton, who argued when Obama wrote his Miami Herald piece that, "Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba."
The criticism from Republican John McCain has been even more pointed. McCain, who has campaigned with Miami Cuban exiles who support the Bush administration's tight restrictions against Cuba, is a hard-liner when it comes to U.S. relations with the island nation.
"Freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand," complained McCain after learning of Castro's decision.
"America can and should help hasten the sparking of freedom in Cuba," added McCain. "The Cuban people have waited long enough."
Translation: McCain would be as tough, perhaps tougher, than the Bush administration when it comes to Cuba.
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.