End the Embargo Now

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Since the end of the Cold War, distinctions between left and right have become blurred on many U.S. foreign policy issues. Policy toward Cuba is one example. Within the United States, disputes over U.S. policy toward Fidel Castro’s government have become more broadly divisive because former anti-Castro colleagues are now at odds with one another. Increasingly, longtime American critics of Castro and his actions are concluding that, in the post–Cold War era, the United States needs a new policy toward the island.

For some years the most prominent critics of the embargo ranged from the late president Richard Nixon through columnists William F. Buckley and George Will to the first Latin American specialist on President Reagan’s National Security Council staff, and analysts at the Cato Institute and Hoover Institution. With the initiative to set up a Presidential Bipartisan Commission on Cuba launched in October 1998, the number of those openly and as a group committed to at least seriously reevaluating current policy jumped exponentially. Among the supporters of a comprehensive reevaluation were former secretaries of state George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and Lawrence Eagleburger. By mid-December 1998, 25 U.S. senators, Republicans and Democrats, were calling for a bipartisan commission. This number included the majority of Republicans (most of whom had supported the 1996 Helms-Burton Law, the current embodiment of U.S. policy) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Jesse Helms.


The anti-Castro lobby wields political and economic clout that few politicians have the political courage to take on.


The most militant supporters of the embargo today—who might be called the embargo lobby—are Cuban Americans, some members of Congress from both major parties, and a diminishing number of professors and think tank analysts. President Clinton has occasionally dropped the political clichés and spoken frankly on Cuba. For example, he has stated that Cuban Americans in Miami are largely responsible for U.S. policy on Cuba today and that, for all his criticism of the embargo, Fidel Castro seems to do everything he can to maintain it. Yet as a politician, Clinton has played a major role in bringing about the worst aspects of current U.S. policy and prevented a serious evaluation of the sanctions. His occasional efforts to reduce tensions have been at most marginally successful, when they didn’t actually backfire (with help from Castro). Both prospective major party presidential candidates in the 2000 election publicly support current policy. Most members of Congress—even those who privately admit they think our current Cuba policy is misguided—still seem to think the lobby has enough votes, money, and decibels at its disposal to warrant continued hands-off treatment for domestic political reasons.

The lobby is now led politically by Cuban American and other members of Congress and the Cuban American National Foundation. The lobby demonstrated its clout between October 1998 and January 1999, when it got the Clinton administration to reject the proposed bipartisan commission. But the shrill public statements and arm-twisting typical of the embargo’s loudest spokespersons are alienating more and more people, including former anti-Castro allies. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 42 percent of Americans support the embargo while 51 percent oppose it. Still, for now the bottom line in Washington is that, on a policy of marginal interest to most Americans, a highly focused pressure group in states with important electoral votes can wield political and economic clout that few politicians have the political courage to contend with in the electoral marketplace.


Supporters of the embargo seem to be driven by an understandable but counterproductive vendetta against Fidel Castro himself.


Too often today the main issues raised, particularly by the most militant politicians and political activists who support sanctions, seem to be driven by an understandable but misguided and counterproductive vendetta against Fidel Castro that smacks of hysteria and Cold War politics. For example, those who urge the lifting of sanctions are often said to be "soft" on Castro, to lack concern for the plight of the Cuban people and their desire for liberty, or to be driven by greedy postembargo business schemes. But although some who support ending sanctions fit into these categories, many others have long records of opposing Castro; many who support the embargo have enormous potential economic interests in the island.

This kind of pseudoargumentation effectively sidesteps the real issues, for the main challenge today is not who is tough or soft on Castro but what is the most productive way to deal with him and Cuba under post–Cold War conditions. As Henry Kissinger wrote in mid-1998, in a different but parallel situation, whatever chance sanctions have of working "depends on the ability to define an achievable objective." U.S. policy toward Cuba today has no achievable objective. Just about the only people who benefit from it are those who manipulate it for political purposes, mainly Castro and those in the United States who have made a career of fighting Castro in uncompromising terms. U.S. foreign policy should be built on more solid foundations and on behalf of broader constituencies.


The real issue? Not who is tough or soft on Castro, but what is the most productive way to deal with Cuba under new, post–Cold War conditions.


In recent years, several mainly nongovernment commissions and organizations—including the Atlantic Council, RAND Corporation, and the Council on Foreign Relations—have examined U.S.-Cuban relations from a variety of perspectives. But none has offered as detailed a critique of current policy as would have been produced by the proposed bipartisan commission, which was aborted by a compromising president.

The Embargo: Then and Now

The embargo of Cuba was imposed by the United States when Castro nationalized U.S. properties in Cuba, established links to the Soviet bloc, and supported assorted anti-American countries and organizations in the context of the Cold War. Although the sanctions did not bring Castro’s government down, they made strategic sense for three decades because Cuba’s global involvement in Soviet-promoted aggression was contrary to U.S. interests. In accordance with U.S. Cold War objectives, the embargo complicated Castro’s support for armed groups and other anti-U.S. activities—both in cooperation with and independent of the Soviet bloc—and for decades helped make Cuba the greatest Third World drain on a deteriorating Soviet economy.

The logical U.S. response to the end of the Cold War would have been to lift the embargo unilaterally, since the main conditions the embargo responded to were gone. The Cold War was over, with its division of the world into competing political, economic, and military camps, and Cuba was no longer a significant strategic challenge and active patron of international subversion. The one additional factor that led to the embargo—the nationalization of U.S. properties after 1959—can never be resolved by an embargo. Lifting the sanctions would not have required establishing close relations with Havana, which most Americans would not have wanted and Castro himself would have rejected in any event.

But when the Cold War ended, Washington and the Cuban American communities in Florida and New Jersey devised new reasons for maintaining—even tightening—the embargo. Although some in the embargo lobby continue to argue that Castro is a strategic threat to the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon say it isn’t so. The strategic threat argument probably doesn’t even convince most of those who make it. Thus as one of Clinton’s special advisers on Cuba said, Miami and Washington "moved the goalposts." In March 1998 President Clinton summarized the alleged U.S. objective: "The overarching goal of American policy must be to promote a peaceful transition to democracy on the island."

The problem with U.S. policy is not that democracy and human rights are bad things to promote but that they cannot be achieved or even advanced in Cuba under present circumstances with the resources the United States is willing to commit. Therefore, there is an unbridgeable gap between the high goals we proclaim and our ability to bring them about.

Since the end of the Cold War, the embargo has become a strategic liability to the United States because it

  • Polarizes Cubans in Cuba and abroad. If the embargo succeeds in increasing tensions in Cuba, it may promote a civil war rather than the "peaceful transition" U.S. leaders say they seek. Such a war, should it occur, would raise the prospects of a costly U.S. military intervention to prevent Castro from crushing the opposition.
  • Sets the stage for innumerable small encounters that could escalate. For example, in January 2000 the pilot of a small plane rented in the United States "bombed" Havana with pamphlets. What if Castro had shot the plane down as he did two Cessnas that allegedly overflew Cuban territorial waters in 1996? As it was, Castro sent up two MiGs and the United States launched an F-16. The flight was not illegal under U.S. law, and since many in Miami hailed it as a heroic act, the same thing could easily happen again with more serious consequences.
  • Encourages determined pressure groups to lobby a constantly compromising U.S. executive and Congress in such a way as to threaten the essential interaction of several branches of the government in the analysis and defense of U.S. interests.
  • Antagonizes our allies around the world, complicating cooperation on other important issues.
  • Sets the stage for new generations of hostility between Cubans and Americans because of the imperialistic demands of the Torricelli Act and the Helms-Burton Law.
  • Serves more than it impedes Castro’s own interests by providing a scapegoat for his hopeless economic policies and continuing domestic repression, making him the target of a U.S. vendetta that is condemned by the rest of the world and thus enabling him to maintain at least a vestige of his all-important self-portrayal as a defiant warrior against "U.S. imperialism."

Imposes at least some degree of additional hardship on the Cuban people with no evidence that these hardships will improve their living conditions now or in the foreseeable future. Washington claims its policy is on behalf of the Cuban people, though there is no significant evidence that the Cuban people support the embargo and many indications that they do not. Even the majority of activists reportedly want it lifted.

Makes critically important cooperation between and among Cubans in Cuba and abroad in the eventual post-Castro period more difficult to achieve.

Is so cluttered with contradictions and inconsistencies it has become a dishonest, embarrassing, and pernicious policy unworthy of the United States. For example, U.S. immigration gives incentives to Cubans—touch dry land and you can stay—it denies all other peoples of the world. Yet, at the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard acts as Castro’s border patrol, even shooting pepper spray at Cubans who try to reach the U.S. mainland by sea. Would-be refugees are rounded up while still at sea and returned to Cuba. Sooner or later the Coast Guard is bound to kill someone, hardly consistent with our professed support for people trying to flee from communist tyranny.

Conclusions: Elián and Beyond

U.S. security interests in the Caribbean have flip-flopped, and a Cuba policy that made sense during the Cold War has now become a threat to the well-being of the American and Cuban people. It needs to be changed, and it is up to politicians in Washington to make those changes.

The policy will remain in a rut as long as it is determined largely by Castro and Cuban Americans. The U.S. government and people are not prepared to commit the military or intelligence resources that alone could remove Fidel Castro from power, though most Cuban Americans approve his removal by military means. Thus Castro and Cuba’s broader internal dynamics will continue to determine what happens on the island. It will take the death or incapacitation of Castro, or his improbable retirement, to bring about real internal changes.

There are options, however, if our politicians will develop and implement them. If they don’t do so, they alone are to blame. After a visit to Cuba in late 1999, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that "the U.S. and Cuban Governments have one thing in common today—they’re both ready to mortgage Cuba’s future for its past." But it is even worse than that, for U.S. policy also mortgages some of America’s future to that past.

Tensions between the United States and Cuba grew increasingly rancorous during the struggle over the fate of Elián González, the six-year-old Cuban boy who was picked up last November off the coast of Florida after his mother had drowned at sea trying to reach the United States. The tragedy of the González case clearly demonstrates the negative impact of a foreign policy that promotes confrontation without any realistic hope of accomplishing its objectives. Responsibilities for Elián’s plight go in two directions: to Fidel Castro in Cuba, who is out of our control, and to politicians in Washington, who sometimes seem to be out of most Americans’ control as well. These are the politicians who tightened the embargo twice after the end of the Cold War with the Torricelli Act in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Law in 1996. Polls suggest that Cuban Americans overwhelmingly supported Elián’s staying here, and many politicians professed the same. The majority of Americans, however, thought he should be in the custody of his father, as did a three-judge federal appeals court when it ruled at the end of May. The hostilities between Cuba and the United States, and between Cuban Americans and other Americans, have escalated because of this incident and will not be quickly forgotten.

In this and other cases, confrontation is what U.S. policy promotes, and confrontation and crisis is what it causes. The only good things about the González case are that the uproar has drawn attention to other custody cases around the world, an outdated and inequitable U.S. immigration policy, the inordinate political clout exercised by a militant minority in Miami, and the degree to which many politicians support the wishes of that militant community over the interests of the nation as a whole.

Here is the great irony of current U.S. policy. During the Cold War, Castro’s Soviet-oriented policies were a challenge to U.S. interests and Washington was constantly at war in various ways with the Cuban leader. Today Castro’s foreign policies are generally conducted according to international expectations, and his strategic significance for the United States is roughly zero, but U.S. policy has not changed. The irony is that those who proclaim themselves Castro’s worst enemies have in practice become his best friends and the guarantors of his reputation as an unflinching "anti-imperialist," still defying what he calls U.S. efforts to stamp out any diversity in the world.


The only good things about the Elián González case are that it has drawn attention to an outdated and inequitable U.S. immigration policy and to the inordinate political clout exercised by a militant minority in Miami.


International opposition to the embargo and support for the return of Elián González to his family are not the only propaganda victories Castro has had recently. In moving to make several Western countries the political and cultural police force of the world, the Clinton administration has given life to Castro’s "warnings" that America’s long-term goal is still to dominate the world. The implications of this new "humanitarian" internationalism—exemplified by NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against sovereign Yugoslavia—are grave indeed. Among other things, the policy has already set in motion a possible new realignment of the world by feeding suspicion and distrust between the democratic West and the developing nations, including Russia and China, who feel threatened by the new use of U.S. (and NATO) power. Castro will be an enthusiastic member of any group dedicated to guarding against what Russia’s January 2000 Security Declaration has called "a unipolar world surrounding the United States and its allies"—a "threat" Castro has been pointing to for years.

When we propose lifting the embargo we are not endorsing Castro’s leadership of Cuba but suggesting a more effective use of the resources America has available—and is willing to commit—to achieve the best outcome for the United States and Cuba. It is time Americans put this issue of Fidel Castro in perspective. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger went to China in 1972—during the Cultural Revolution, no less—to talk with Mao Zedong, whose policies during the Great Leap Forward just over a decade earlier had killed enough people to equal the current total population of Cuba three times over. President Clinton has negotiated with and feted former PLO guerrilla chieftain (now "Palestinian leader") Yasir Arafat. In 1999, the United States even struck a deal to lift the embargo on Stalinist North Korea, and the discussions in Northern Ireland are serious if incomplete. Is Castro really more brutal and intractable than Mao and Arafat and Kim Jong Il?


Lifting the embargo will not necessarily bring democracy and human rights to Cuba—but at least it will bring a failed and misguided policy to an end.


There are two basic ways to lift the embargo: all at once or piecemeal. Lifting it unilaterally and all at once would be the better way to go. The act should be accompanied by clear statements that Castro has been dropped from America’s "Most Wanted" to its "Least Relevant" list. The point is not that declaring a one-sided truce with Castro—by lifting the embargo—will necessarily bring democracy to and improved human rights in Cuba but rather that the embargo has not brought these either and shows no signs whatsoever of being able to do so in the future. Lifting it would also reduce the prospects of assorted actual and potential bad side effects.

Unilateral lifting of the sanctions is less practical, however, than a gradualism that doesn’t force members of Congress to stand tall on an issue of little importance to most Americans but of passionate concern to a small, politically aggressive minority. It would be better to lift the embargo piecemeal than not at all if we do so on our own rationally decided timetable, irrespective of what outrageous actions Fidel Castro may undertake to discourage us from doing so.

For the time being, U.S. policy may remain reactive—to Castro and to Cuban American pressure groups—irrespective of the interests of Americans and Cubans as a whole. But the fallout of the Elián González case could spark greater interest than ever before in change. We have made much here of the negative role of the Cuba lobby, but we close by reiterating that their advocacy has not usually been different in kind from that of other pressure groups, simply much more effective. The buck falls on the politicians who must see and be willing to implement a new Cuba policy attuned to the post–Cold War world.