President Obama blinked.
Fidel Castro reflected.
And Mel Martinez may have gotten his moderate mojo back.
Obama opened up family travel to Cuba without extracting one concession from the Cuban government, like the release of political prisoners, so Cold War-era hard-liners say Obama gave in to the cash-strapped Castro brothers.
But it was more of a nod to the Cuban American National Foundation. Obama simply delivered on his promise at a CANF event last year: more family travel, which the Bush administration limited in 2004 to once every three years.
As for the U.S. embargo, it stays.
"The president is very clear that we're getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families," Dan Restrepo, Obama's Latin America specialist, said at Monday's bilingual news conference. "The Cuban government should get out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. It should stop charging the usurious fees that it does on these remittances. The call is very clear."
Yeah, well, Fifo may have other plans. In one of his "reflections," Castro patted Obama on the back – and pulled the race card, too, to slap Obama policy, arguing that nothing short of lifting the embargo will do.
"All that remains is for Obama to persuade all the Latin American presidents there that the blockade is harmless," Castro wrote, once again using the embargo as geopolitical whipping boy to excuse his 50 years of economic failures.
Cuba "will never hold out its hands begging for handouts," he stated. "It will go on with its head held high . . . regardless of whether there are Summits of the Americas, whether or not Obama, a man or a woman, a white citizen or a black citizen presides over the United States."
Clearly, Obama's presidency challenges Cuba's ruling white gerontocracy as it faces a new multiracial generation hungry for rights.
Obama, in his typical measured fashion, took a strategic first step. It's not the free-for-all some Republicans and Democrats pushing to end the trade embargo want. Good thing, because letting Cuba buy on credit has the potential to sock it to the U.S. taxpayer if Cuba doesn't pay up. Nor does it open Cuba to the U.S. tourist yearning for a mojito and cigar tour – yet.
But there will be lots of money going to Cuba, which can lead to a strengthened civil society pressing for change – or become another historical dead end that only enriches the ruling Castro clan.
For me, it's worth a try after five years of Bush's "tough love." Allowing a free flow of remittances to extended family will help thousands of Cubans repair homes wrecked by last summer's hurricanes and a half century of top-down communist stagnation. Add humanitarian aid from nonprofits and church groups to go directly to the Cuban people and we'll see if the regime feels threatened.
Martinez fears the fly-anytime, send-as-much-as-you-can incentives will prop up the hemisphere's only dictatorship with U.S. dollars during this global economic downturn. "It ultimately becomes a huge windfall for the regime," he said.
But he supports opening visits to extended family like cousins and aunts, which he still has in Cuba. It's a pragmatic, nuanced departure from his past statements seeking concessions from Cuba before loosening any rules.
Obama's middle ground turns out to be the most Republican of ideas: Get government out of the way and uphold family values. It took a Democrat to be so blandly bold, which surely scares Fifo.