After watching President Obama deliver his landmark speech in Cuba Monday, two members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation are giving high marks to both his message and his broader policy of heightened engagement.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern is an old Cuba hand: By his own estimation, he’s traveled there 16 times. So I asked him about Obama’s decision, during his speech, to blend pressure with self-criticism. (For example, Obama said Cubans should be able to speak their minds without fear, a reference to Cuba’s longstanding suppression of dissent—but also mentioned the United States’ struggles with racism and money in politics.)
As McGovern sees it, Obama had good diplomatic reasons to strike a rhetorical balance on those topics.
“Look, our policy toward Cuba over the last five decades has really been an arrogant policy,” McGovern said. “We lecture, and we shout, and we point fingers. If you want to make progress in human rights—or in other areas, quite frankly—you need to approach these issues from a position of mutual respect.”
McGovern also thought it was appropriate for Obama to restrict his discussion on the Brussels terrorist attacks to a few brief remarks at the outset of his speech.
“What happened in Brussels is horrendous, and my heart aches,” McGovern said, adding: “I can tell you, because I’ve been surrounded by White House aides all day today, that [Obama] been up all night monitoring the situation, and is deeply disturbed about it like all of us are."
Like McGovern, Rep. Seth Moulton—who made his first-ever trip to Cuba to watch Obama’s address—praised the president’s speech and policy of heightened engagement, which was officially launched in December 2014.
Already, Moulton said, there are clear signs that Cuba is becoming more open and more free.
“We went out to a fantastic restaurant for dinner the first night we were here—private restaurants didn’t even exist 10 or 15 years ago,” Moulton said. “You can get cell coverage, which my colleagues who’ve been here before say wasn’t available on previous trips. Those changes are already starting to happen. There’s clearly momentum building.”
But Moulton also had a caveat, based on his observation of the audience’s response during Obama’s speech.
“It was fascinating, because every time he pushed the Cuban government or the Cuban people to do more, there was hearty applause from us in the congressional delegation and from the other Americans, but tentative applause from the Cubans,” he said. “Obviously, this is a regime that’s still oppressive.”
Both Moulton and McGovern back further liberalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Speaking from Havana as he traveled to an exhibition baseball game, McGovern had harsh words for the congressional leaders he says have kept that from occurring.
“I have a bill along with Congressman Mark Sanford, a Republican from South Carolina, to lift the travel restrictions,” McGovern said. “I’m a cosponsor of the bill to lift the economic embargo. And we ought to do it!"
“The critics of the president’s new policy say that we ought to have more democracy in Cuba before we do anything,” McGovern continued. “Well, here’s my view: We ought to have a little bit more democracy in the Congress as well. And that means that the leadership of the House and Senate ought to schedule a debate and a vote on these issues."
“We’ve tried on numerous occasions and been constantly blocked,” he added. “I think the majority of members of the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, would vote to change things.”