Global Policy Forum

Freeing Cuba


The Nation

26 January 1998

When Pope John Paul II holds an unprecedented mass in Havana's Revolutionary Square on January 25, he should say a prayer for the wayward soul of U. S. foreign policy. Through nearly four decades of invasions, assassination attempts, on sabotage and economic strangulation, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been devilishly destructive. The Pope's visit provides the opportunity for political-if not spiritual-policy enlightenment, and even a modicum of historical redemption.

While the Pontiff is expected to call for a more open and humane society in Cuba, Cuban officials hope-and White House officials fear-that he will also urge a more open and humane U.S. policy. The Vatican is on record as opposing, on humanitarian grounds, economic sanctions that penalize the populace and leave governments relatively unscathed. So too is the U.S. Catholic Church. In a 1992 letter to the Bush Administration, protesting the tightening of the Cuba embargo, the US. Catholic Conference noted that embargoes "are acts of force ... morally unacceptable, generally in violation of the principles of international law, and always contrary to the values of the Gospel."

The Cuba embargo is all of the above and worse. Put in place by President Kennedy's executive order in 1962, it is a fossilized relic of an era that refuses to recede into cold war history. Since its inception, the trade embargo has become, as the Bay of Pigs invasion was once called "a perfect failure" in all ethical, political and economic respects. It hurts the Cuban people but has failed to shake the government. Castro's hold on power remains intact with no challenges in the foreseeable future, as C.I.A. Director George Tenet recently reported to Congress. Cuba's leading dissident, Elisardo Sanchez, has stated the obvious: "It is time to realize that by maintaining open hostility, the United States is helping Castro."

Moreover, the embargo has isolated Washington instead of Havana. In November, 143 nations supported a U.N. resolution to castigate the United States for the embargo; only Uzbekistan and Israel voted with Washington. With the passage of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act penalizing other countries with more open policies toward Cuba, the embargo has egregiously offended such major trading partners as Canada, Britain, Mexico and France.

Still, the "wreak havoc" crowd, led by Senator Robert Torricelli and financed by Miami's hard-line exile community, has managed to keep opposition to the embargo at bay. The logic of their position-to squeeze Cuba until it implodes into civil war runs directly counter to U.S. national interests in the Caribbean. More than one major Pentagon study has pointed out that destabilization of Cuba will generate hundreds of thousands of refugees and extreme political pressure for U.S. military interventions prospect the Southern Command and presumably the U.S. public, would rather avoid.

For that reason, a growing number of conservatives have come to understand that the lure of capitalism is a far better option more likely to subvert Cuba's socialist foundations than any C.I.A. covert operation or economic ratchet. Right-wing pundit John McLaughlin, for one, recently attended a salsa party at Cuba's Washington mission-a sight unimaginable a few years ago. "A constructive policy," William Ratliff, the Cuba specialist at the Hoover Institution, wrote in The Washington Times, would begin with "bombing Havana-with a million Big Macs, U.S. ideas, U.S. products, U.S. citizens." Even Richard Nixon called for an "open door" policy that would "drop the economic embargo and open the way to trade, investment, and economic interaction."

This is the time to change course in Cuba. Conditions are favorable: As the first re-elected Democrat since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, President Clinton is no longer hostage to Florida's electoral votes. Jorge Mas Canosa, the rabid leader of the anti-Castro forces, is dead-although his reactionary spirit lives on in his Cuban American National Foundation. Business groups, pining to exploit Cuban markets and investment opportunities, are currently building a lobby for lifting the embargo. And the Pope's visit provides humanitarian cover for ending the hostility that has dominated Cuba policy since 1959.

Until the passage of Helms-Burton, which codified the embargo into national law, President Clinton could have lifted it with a simple signature on an executive order. It will now take a majority vote in Congress to end the embargo; given political realities, that can only be done sanction by sanction. A starting point is the Cuban Humanitarian Trade bill, introduced by Republican Jim Leach and Democrat Esteban Torres, and with ninety sponsors. (The Senate version, somewhat weaker, is called the Cuban Women and Children Humanitarian Relief Act.) The bill would remove the ban on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba-a ban that not even the embargo on Iraq includes. A broad coalition of religious, moderate-exile,- man rights and business groups have endorsed the bill. "Denying food and medicine to the people of Cuba is behavior unworthy of a great nation like the United States," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated in a press release. "U.S. business takes no comfort when economic warfare is waged against Cuban children."

There are indications that Bill Clinton would like to bring U.S.-Cuba policy into the modem world. In recent months, he has repeatedly told interviewers that there could be "an opening" if only Havana would send a signal of reform. In a rare move, the C.I.A.'s deputy national intelligence officer for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, traveled to Cuba in late fall for a "get acquainted" visit with Cuban officials. He was told that nothing could be done until Washington "halts the economic aggression against Cuba."

The United States should be superpower enough to avoid such a who'll-go-first game. "It is better to deal straight with Castro," as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger instructed his aides in 1975 during a secret attempt to improve relations with Cuba. "Behave chivalrously; do it like a big guy, not like a shyster." Bill Clinton should heed that advice.


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