¡Viva la Blanco!

Last week, Louisiana's moderate governor Kathleen Blanco (D) scored a major coup: leading a bi-partisan delegation in a three-day visit to Cuba, Blanco convinced Cuban officials to purchase $15 million worth of agricultural products from the Bayou state. Blanco's ability to bring home the goods was widely applauded by Louisiana natives, including state Sen. Robert Barham, a farmer and Republican who joined the trade mission.

But Louisiana's success has the White House seeing red. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Sunday:
"The Republican White House has called on the state GOP to condemn Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco's face-to-face meeting with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as she wound up a three-day visit to the island nation last week, and state party Chairman Roger Villere said Saturday that the group will oblige President Bush.

"'The State Department and the White House have requested that we take a position,' Villere said ... 'We are going to be against her meeting with Castro. It is an insult to our foreign policy and the president of the United States.'"
The Bush Administration's attempt to bash Blanco in her hour of triumph is sowing confusion among the Republican lawmakers who joined and praised the Cuban excursion, and it has Democrats charging the White House with making a hypocritical about-face. As Blanco's chief of staff Andy Kopplin told the paper, Jim Cason -- head of the Bush administration's American Interest Section in Cuba -- had earlier "congratulated the Blanco delegation for making the trip to capitalize on trade with the Caribbean nation."

The White House's fury may be nothing more than party grandstanding, but it's happening in the very real context of the ongoing embargo against Cuba, which the Bush administration tightened last year in what many saw as a bid to shore up Florida's Cuban vote. As the advocacy group Global Exchange notes, the embargo is a bizarre relic of the Cold War era:
The blockade was originally rationalized on the basis that Cuba was a threat to U.S. national security. Cuba's expropriation of U.S. property following their1959 revolution, subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union, and support for armed revolutionary forces in Latin America and Africa, are a few of the reasons cited.

Now, however, the political situation has entirely changed. The Cold War has been over for ten years; the Soviet Union no longer exists; the U.S. has normal trade and diplomatic relations with all the countries of the former Eastern bloc, and in fact, has granted the largest Communist country, China, its Most Favored Nation status.

Struggling with its own economic problems, Cuba no longer has the capacity to support armed revolution abroad. In fact, according to one Center for Defense Information Study, Cuba spends on its military in one year what the U.S. spends in ten hours.
Perhaps what really has the White House worried is that aversion to U.S. policy has helped spur a series of electoral victories for left-leaning governments in Latin America. As the Washington Times uneasily reported last week, "the inauguration on March 1 of Tabare Vazquez as president of Uruguay was the latest in a string of electoral victories for leftist and populist candidates," including Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Ricardo Lagos in Chile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina.

And, as Condoleezza Rice's troubled visit to Mexico last week revealed, the U.S. clearly fears that Latin America's new "pragmatic revolution" may ripple up to the U.S. border: leftist Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leads the polls for the country's 2006 presidential elections.

But what this shows more than anything is that Cuba isn't the center of gravity for the new Latin American left, making the administration's fixation on punishing Cuba and those who, like the state of Louisiana, want to trade with the country all the more inexplicable. Indeed, the time to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba -- which the United Nations condemned last year by a vote of 179 to 4 -- is long overdue.