Much of the focus on Chuck Hagel’s record has been on his views on Israel, Iran and sequestration. Equally troubling has been his dismissive attitude toward the Castros and his enthusiasm to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba with no quid pro quo.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has already expressed serious concerns about Hagel’s views on Cuba. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, put out a statement objecting to Hagel’s nomination as defence secretary:
"During his time in Congress, Hagel supported legislation that would have provided a lifeline to the decrepit Castro regime that for the last half a century has exploited the Cuban people and posed a severe security threat to the U.S. ... In a time of regional turmoil and rogue regimes, our Secretary of Defence must... stand up to dictators like the Castro brothers who seek to oppress the voices of democracy and freedom."
At times Hagel has seemed clueless about the Castros’ role in the region. He has worked assiduously in favour of lifting the trade embargo, calling the policy "outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant." And, according to the Omaha World Herald in 2002, he once told a State Department official that calling Fidel Castro a threat is "just goofy... this is a toothless old dinosaur."
Frank Calzon, who heads the Center for a Free Cuba, told me in a telephone interview: "I respect him like any other senator. But apparently he is not very well informed. To the extent he has been aware, he has underestimated the Cuba situation."
The Castro regime, of course, has grown close to the Iranian regime and has allied with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In seizing and imprisoning American Alan Gross, it has advocated a swap with five Cuban spies (a position strenuously opposed by the Senate).
"Jimmy Carter, like Hagel, felt it was for lack of trying that relations were so dismal," Calzon noted. But of course, this ignores outreach efforts under other administrations. Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action.
Calzon contends that Hagel "will not present different views" to President Obama, who has already been inclined to follow the Carter approach to Cuba. And Calzon is certain how the Castro regime will respond. "The Cubans will celebrate having Hagel in the Pentagon," he said. "Not only will they see that as a sign of weakness but as an invitation to push the envelope. Instead of reducing the chance of conflict, the opposite is true."