"Yes there has been some relief with regards to Cuba," Wilkerson continued. "Yes, we're practicing diplomacy rather than the war instrument with Iran. But I wonder how much longer either of those things are going to go on, and how much better they're going to get in the three-and-a-half years that this president has left," adding later that he sees "moral courage as missing in the White House."
Wilkerson acknowledged that he too showed a lack of moral courage when he failed to step down as chief-of-staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003-2004 because of his fundamental disagreements with the Bush White House on Iraq.
President Obama has certainly done some things to improve relations between the two nations: In April of 2009 he signed an executive order that lifted restrictions on family travel to Cuba and increased the amount of monetary remittance that families could send to relatives in Cuba. In 2011 he established new rules that allowed religious and education groups to travel to Cuba, and permitted more U.S. airports (like Tampa) to provide services to licensed charters. Still, advocates for ending the sanctions said they are frustrated he hasn't gone further.
Other panelists who spoke on Saturday included Peter Kornbluh, Director of the Cuba Documentation Project with the National Security Archives; Dan Whittle, Program Director with the Environmental Defense Fund; Wayne Smith, a fellow at the Center for International Policy and the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; Mike Mauricio, the owner of a Florida produce company that has been doing business with Cuba since 2003; and Llanio Gonzalez-Lopes, General Counsel of Cuba in the U.S. with the Cuban Interests Section.
All had fascinating tales to tell. Kornbluh recounted various attempts at rapprochement with Cuba, going back to the time of JFK's assassination nearly 50 years ago. He said that the best opportunity for enhanced relations between the U.S. and the Raoul Castro-led government is right now, because President Obama was elected without Florida ultimately being a factor in last year's presidential election.
"The less Florida is a swing state in the future, the more free politicians will be on this," Kornbluh said, agreeing with others that two former senators now serving on his national security team — Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — are both supporters of enhancing relations with the Cuban government.
Wayne Smith said that the U.S. is the only country in the Western hemisphere that doesn't have trade relations with Cuba.
"We're the ones who are isolated," he lamented, mentioning how Latin American leaders said at the conclusion of last year's Summit of the Americas in Columbia that unless Cuba was invited to next summit (scheduled for Panama in 2015), there won't be one.
Smith also mentioned how blogger Yoani Sanchez, one of Cuba's best-known dissidents who made the rounds this week with members of Congress in Washington, also wants the U.S. to end the trade embargo.
Whittle works with the Environmental Defense Fund to advance conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems in Cuba, which puts him directly in contact with Cuban scientists and lawyers to work on a host of issues. He said there has been a positive change in allowing the granting of visas to Cuban scientists since Obama was elected in 2008.
But it's still not as smooth as it should be, he said, referring to the fact that when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was in its initial stages three years ago, it threatened Cuba's shores as well as everyone on the Gulf Coast. But he said Cuban officials weren't getting information from the U.S. State Department. He said ultimately that changed, but it was up to non-government organizations like his to be the first line of information for the Cuban government in a time of an international crisis.
During the Q-and-A session with the audience, Wilkerson acknowledged that changing Cuban policy isn't a priority with the Obama administration, not with all that is going on with Syria, Iran and the the economy as the sequester continues. But he added that if he were to "make some dramatic moves" on the issue, people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham would attack him. Whether he's willing to do that for "such a low hanging fruit issue," Wilkerson said, remained doubtful.
The man who put the two-day forum together, Al Fox, was content to stay in the back of the room on Saturday, for the most part. But at one point during the Q-and-A he took the mic from moderator Rob Lorei to explain that the Cuban embargo, whose end is his life's goal, has nothing to do with the lack of freedom of the press or other actions that the U.S. government disapproves of, but is simply all about "vengeance" on the part of the Cuban-American exile community.
The conference began on Friday night at the downtown Tampa eatery Mise en Place, where local Congresswoman Kathy Castor said she doesn't believe that restrictions on trade and travel made sense any longer.