Los Angeles Times
May 23, 2008

Obama says he would meet with Cuba's leaders

Barack Obama wants "direct diplomacy" with the Castro government in an effort to bring democracy to Cuba. One critic calls the view "wishful thinking."

By Carol J. Williams and Johanna Neuman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

MIAMI Sen. Barack Obama called today for "direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike," saying he would meet with Cuba's Communist leaders in hopes of advancing democracy on the island.

In a luncheon speech to the most powerful Cuban exile group in the country, the Illinois Democrat vying for his party's presidential nomination also said he would immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances.

"It's time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It's time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans," he said, noting the prospects for influencing Cuba's political course by engagement and example.

The annual Cuban Independence Day banquet of the Cuban American National Foundation cheered Obama's avowed commitment to fostering democracy in Cuba. But the audience showed its wariness of his talk of meeting with Cuban leaders. Mere handfuls applauded that statement from among the crowd of at least 500.

Obama contrasted his plan to break nearly half a century of deadlock in U.S.-Cuba relations with the stated intentions of Republican rival Sen. John McCain. He said the Arizona senator "joined the parade of politicians who make the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade" when he promised Tuesday to maintain the status quo of refusing any dialogue with the Cuban leadership.

"Instead of offering a strategy for change, he chose to distort my position, embrace George Bush's, and continue a policy that's done nothing to advance freedom for the Cuban people," Obama said.

He said any meetings with the Cuban leadership would be well prepared and guided by the pursuit of liberty and democracy, disputing McCain's characterization of his seeking a meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro "as if I'm looking for a social gathering."

"Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice and repression in Cuba," Obama said. "Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century."

After eight years of "disastrous" Bush administration policy, "It is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions," he said, adding that the time and place would be of his choosing.

"I will never, ever, compromise the cause of liberty. And unlike John McCain, I would never, ever, rule out a course of action that could advance the cause of liberty," he said, promising to "turn the page."

Obama said he would immediately end the restrictions limiting Cuban Americans to visiting family on the island to once every three years, without exceptions, and the prohibition against sending money to anyone but immediate family. Since the Bush administration tightened sanctions against Cuba in 2004, remittances have been limited to $100 a month and only to parents, siblings and children.

"I will maintain the embargo. 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," Obama said.

Foundation Chairman Jorge Mas Santos voiced the Cuban American community's enduring opposition to any U.S. president meeting with the Castro regime before political prisoners are released and free elections slated.

The son of the foundation's late founder, Mas described any expectation of engaging Raul Castro in democratic reforms as "wishful thinking."

In other campaign news, the White House announced today that President Bush will head to the campaign trail next week, headlining private fundraising events for McCain in Arizona and Utah.

With approval ratings below 30%, Bush's role in the campaign may be to turn out the Republican faithful and help build McCain's campaign coffers.

Obama is also planning to campaign next week in swing states critical to the Democrats' chances in November, stumping in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, states where Obama argues he is more competitive with McCain than his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Obama campaign picked up more delegate support today, winning endorsements from two congressmen from California, where Clinton won the Feb. 5 primary.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Atwater, who had supported Clinton, cited the inevitability of Obama's nomination.

"While I continue to greatly respect and admire Sen. Clinton and feel she has made history with her campaign, I believe that Sen. Obama will inevitably be our party's nominee for president. He has proven himself to be a thoughtful, knowledgeable and inspirational leader and will take America in a new direction, which we desperately need."

Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno agreed. "It's been a long presidential primary season, and now is time to bring it to a close," he said in a statement. Saying that he "did not come to this decision without careful consideration," Costa said that he has invited Obama to the San Joaquin Valley to "understand the water challenges we face, the diversity of our farm crops and the combination of the wonderful ethnic communities that make up Valley families, which is truly a reflection of our nation."

Two delegates from New Hampshire who were pledged to former Sen. John Edwards for president also endorsed Obama today. "We chose Obama because he so clearly understands the American yearning for change," state Sen. Peter Burling told the Associated Press. "He understands it, he embraces it, and I think he has the leadership to deliver it."

Edwards won four delegates in New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary. One had already switched to Obama; the fourth is still undecided.

"If it were Sen. Clinton who in my mind had the edge at this moment, she would be getting exactly this kind of endorsement," Burling said. High school teacher Deborah Nelson said she was impressed with the Obama field organization and outreach, though wishes his health-care plan were as universal as Clinton's.

Another superdelegate, Jenny Greenleaf of Portland, Ore., posted her endorsement of Obama online today, writing that he has "the vision and leadership ability to move the country forward and to undo the damage done by the Bush administration."

Clinton, whose campaign is in debt by an estimated $20 million, has $55,000 in unpaid bills for campaign events at Indiana University.

University spokesman Larry McIntyre told the Associated Press the university knew there was a risk that the bills would not be paid when they charged the campaigns for sound equipment, security and other needs for their events.

Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, made several appearances at the university in the run-up to Indiana's May 6 primary.

Obama's campaign, the AP reported, already paid the more than $108,000 it owed Indiana University for two Assembly Hall events.