Commentary: Cuba policy was missing from presidential debates

The Miami HeraldOctober 29, 2012 

Bayonets and battleships made appearances but, on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the final presidential debate — focused on foreign affairs — was notable for one missing hot topic: Cuba.

Not even as a follow-up to the historical reference of the anniversary made by moderator Bob Schieffer did U.S. policies toward the Cuban dictatorship get a mention Monday night.

It was a surprising omission given the subject’s role in other presidential elections and the unprecedented longevity in the hemisphere of a repressive regime only 90 miles from Florida, where the debate took place.

And Cuba wasn’t the only snub. All of the Caribbean and Latin America were neglected despite the economic relevance of a region that represents millions of trade jobs to Americans.

But while there were laments on social media about the absences, some experts agree that the focus on the convulsive Middle East and China was appropriate.

“I don’t think people were crushed that Cuba didn’t come up,” University of Miami history professor Jaime Suchlicki told me. “Cuba is not that relevant in the scheme of things, and given the problems the United States has in the world, Cuba is a low priority.”

But he, too, was surprised it wasn’t discussed at least in the historical context of the day.

“I thought there would be a question about the lessons of the missile crisis since it was Oct. 22,” Suchlicki said. “Did we learn anything from what happened 50 years ago? But look, neither [Hugo] Chavez or Venezuela were mentioned or Mexico and the violence and drug trade.”

The way Florida International University political science professor Eduardo Gamarra sees the debate, those omissions are a positive.

The only reference to Latin America was made by Romney, who said he wants more free trade with Latin America — “a noticeable contrast from how Latin America has always come up in the debates,” Gamarra told me from Venezuela.

“We were drug traffickers, communist insurgents, and today, we’re a positive reference pushing the agenda of free trade and commerce. I’m glad we’re being looked at as strategic partners for a change.”

The only minus, Gamarra said: “The reality is the U.S. has already run out of countries with which to have a free-trade agreement. The only countries left are Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, who don’t want free-trade agreements with us.”

And so Romney’s comment about the importance of trade with Latin America “is very generous,” but only a strategic campaign talking point.

“Unfortunately,” Gamarra added, “it didn’t come from the president.”

As for Cuba, no matter who wins, little change can be expected in the next four years, Suchlicki said.

He made a prediction: “I don’t think the Cuba policy is going to go anywhere.”

That would be a sad state of affairs for the Cuban people, whose fortunes often depend on the attention the world casts upon government abuses, but from a Cuban-American perspective, it might not be the worst thing.

On matters of foreign policy, sometimes less is more.

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