Every Time You See Vietnam, Think Cuba

July 26, 2013

Yesterday, President Obama met at the White House with Truong Tan Sang, the president of Vietnam.  Later, Mr. Obama traveled to Jacksonville, Florida to deliver a speech on our nation’s economy.  What happened at these two events perfectly illustrates how what is wrong with U.S.-Cuba policy could easily be made right.

Speaking from the Oval Office, this is how President Obama described what diplomatic relations with Vietnam allows both countries to do:

“Obviously, we all recognize the extraordinarily complex history between the United States and Vietnam.  Step by step, what we have been able to establish is a degree of mutual respect and trust that has allowed us now to announce a comprehensive partnership between our two countries that will allow even greater cooperation on a whole range of issues from trade and commerce to military-to-military cooperation, to multilateral work on issues like disaster relief, to scientific and educational exchanges.”

But, as President Obama said, the subject of human rights was very much on the table:

“We discussed the challenges that all of us face when it comes to issues of human rights, and we emphasized how the United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly.  And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.”

Significantly, the U.S and Vietnam are making progress on unresolved issues from the war because our countries have normal relations.  Again, Mr. Obama:

“We both reaffirmed the efforts that have been made to deal with war legacy issues.  We very much appreciate Vietnam’s continued cooperation as we try to recover our Missing in Action and those that were lost during the course of the war.  And I reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to work with Vietnam around some of the environmental and health issues that have continued, decades later, because of the war.”

President Sang characterized the talks from Vietnam’s perspective:

“To be frank, President Obama and I had a very candid, open, useful and constructive discussion.  We discussed various matters, including political relations, science and technology, education, defense, the legacy of the war issue, environment, the Vietnamese-American community, human rights as well — and the East Sea as well.”

President Sang also affirmed the power of engagement:

“In a candid, open and constructive spirit, we have come to agree on many issues.  We will strengthen high-level exchanges between the two countries…(and) we will continue regular dialogue at the highest level as possible.  I believe that this is the way in order to build a political trust for further development of our cooperation in all areas.”

Following this meeting, President Obama flew to Jacksonville, Florida to give a speech about his plans for the economy.  He talked about how ordinary Americans benefit from trade:

“In a couple of years, new supertankers are going to start coming through the Panama Canal. Those supertankers can hold three times the amount of cargo.  We want those supertankers coming here to Jacksonville.  (Applause.) If we’ve got more supertankers coming here, that means more jobs at the terminals. That means more warehouses in the surrounding area.  That means more contractors are getting jobs setting up those warehouses.  That means they’ve got more money to spend at the restaurant. That means the waitress has more money to spend to buy her iPod. It starts working for everybody.”

Why talk about Vietnam or the benefits of trade in a publication devoted to news and analysis about Cuba?

Well, during the Vietnam War, over 58,000 Americans were killed, about 1 in ten Americans who served, and as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died.  The war ended in 1975. It wasn’t easy, but once the United States and Vietnam shook off the burdens of their painful shared history they found they could engage with each other, respectfully and productively.

Today, our country cannot do this with Cuba, because U.S. policy requires Cuba to solve every one of our problems – with its political and economic systems, even with the presence of Raúl Castro as its nation’s president – as a precondition for normalizing relations.  This policy has a proven, fifty year record of failure as a policy, depriving the people of Jacksonville, Florida, and the U.S. of the benefits of free travel and trade, exchange, and everything else.

When President Obama closed his speech in Jacksonville with these words about the opponents of his economic policy, he might have also been talking about U.S. relations with Cuba.

“We’ve got to stop with the short-term thinking.  We’ve got to stop with the outdated debates. That’s not what the moment requires.”

Indeed.

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