SEMPER FIDEL? The Cuban Embargo

Thursday, July 23, 1998

The Clinton Administration argues that isolating Castro is the best way to make him democratize, adopt market reforms and compensate Americans for property seized during the revolution. Is it? William Ratliff, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Jose Sorzano, Former President of the Cuban-American National Foundation, discuss whether isolating Castro is still effective.

Recorded on Thursday, July 23, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: The Cuban Embargo.

One box of good cigars, another box of good cigars. Both Montecristos ... both smell pretty good ... I happen to like cigars. Have one from this box and, if cigars are your thing, you'll have a good smoke. Have one from this box and you could end up doing time. The difference: these cigars were made in the Dominican Republic, but these - "Hecho en Cuba" - made in Cuba. In 1961, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba, making it illegal for Americans to bring back cigars or anything else from the island of Cuba. Now, that's not much of a hardship on Americans. As we just pointed out, if you can't get cigars from Havana anymore, you can get good cigars from the Dominican Republic. But what about the hardship that imposes on the Cuban people? Consider this array of consumer goods representative of the kinds of goods that we Americans take for granted but that the Cubans can no longer get from us. That's a serious blow to their standard of living, wouldn't you imagine? Well, you might want to think again. New York Yankees cap: made in Bangladesh. Bangladesh trades with Cuba. Very nice pan: made in France. France trades with Cuba. A jacket purchased at the Gap: made in Italy. Italy trades with Cuba. Avocados, strawberries: you might think they come from California. These happen to come from Mexico. Mexico trades with Cuba. So what's the point? If the Cuban embargo doesn't make any difference to the standard of living in Cuba, why don't we just do away with it and establish normal trade relations with Cuba? After all, the United States does trade with communist China. With us today, two guests. William Ratliff is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution who believes we should indeed lift the embargo against Cuba. Jose Sorzano, himself originally from Cuba, is adamant that we should not.


ROBINSON What specifically does the imposition of the embargo accomplish?

SORZANO If we have an embargo, we prevent Castro from getting zillions of dollars out of the IMF and of the World Bank, which is, other than finding oil in downtown Havana, that is the only hope that he has for big money coming in quickly.

ROBINSON So you're not afraid of trade with Cuba. What concerns you is the notion that these international organizations will suddenly dump money on top of Fidel.

SORZANO I am not concerned about trade because Fidel Castro does not have money to buy a Chrysler. That's why he doesn't buy a Toyota. I mean, the reason ... I mean ... that he doesn't have money to do anything, so I'm not concerned about trade. Besides, my business right now is to take American companies to Latin America. When you take an American company down to Argentina who has had a growth of seven percent for the last ten years, who has no inflation, who has, I mean, every damn thing you're getting is very, very, very difficult to persuade them to put a nickel in Argentina, so to try to persuade them to put money in Havana where there is no electricity, there's no loan, there's no nothing, it ... it's not going to happen, so I'm not worried about that.

ROBINSON Bill, what do you want lifting the embargo to accomplish?

RATLIFF Well, I don't think it's ... I don't think maintaining the embargo is going to get rid of Castro, and so ... and so...

ROBINSON What will lifting it do?

RATLIFF It will make a policy that makes sense because a policy that has no possibility of succeeding is a stupid policy. And I think there is no chance that it's going to get rid of Castro. It may prevent him from getting some money.

ROBINSON There's a switch in the middle of the table. If you flip it and the embargo is no more, what happens next?

RATLIFF I think Fidel will be very unhappy if the embargo is lifted, frankly. And I think that's why he shot down the planes in 1996, because he recognized...

ROBINSON Remind people of that incident. What happened in 1996?

RATLIFF O.K. In 1996 is when these couple of small planes flew out of Miami and Fidel shot them down. Why did he shoot them down? Because...I think because Congress was just tearing apart the Helms-Burton legislation at that time.

ROBINSON And the Helms-Burton legislation was ...

RATLIFF the legislation that was passed in 1996 by unanimous vote of virtually everyone immediately after Fidel shot down the planes. I think Fidel wants the embargo because it provides him the target - the American imperialist target - that has always been the most important thing in his life so that he can continue beating up on the American imperialists.

ROBINSON His power rests on the Cuban people being whipped into a lather against the United States, and without the embargo, Fidel has no instrument by which to whip his own people into a lather - into an anti-American lather.

RATLIFF Well, I don't think most Cubans are anti-American. I think ... but I think it's something that he uses as an excuse.

ROBINSON What about Jose's argument that if the embargo is lifted, the IMF, the World Bank, will just dump billions of dollars into Havana ostensibly to rebuild the country? Fidel lines his own pockets, the top communist cadres get rich, and the Cuban military gets lots of new, shiny new equipment.

SORZANO ...and this is assistance directly to government, not to any so-called private...

RATLIFF Well, it would not be my objective that all this money would go into Cuba, but I don't see it as that big a disadvantage. I don't see it as that big a problem. I don't think the embargo or the lifting of the embargo, either one, is liable to bring down Fidel in the foreseeable future. He's going to go when he goes, whether it's because he's sick as he was ...

ROBINSON And why do you want to lift it if it doesn't make any difference one way or the other?

RATLIFF Oh, I can give you a lot of reasons for also wanting to lift it.

ROBINSON Give me one. Give me the top one.

RATLIFF I think because it's a much more humane policy toward the Cuban people. There has been an embargo now since 1960. There's been an embargo after the Cold War for almost a decade and it has not brought him down. The embargo is not the main reason for the Cuban people's misery by 95%; it's Castro's own economy. It's his own policies. And yet, to the extent that it has any impact, and if it has no impact, what's the point, I think it makes things worse on the Cuban people. And it does not make things worse ...

Aside from the economic impact, is there any moral or legal justification for an embargo that dates back more than thirty years?


ROBINSON The embargo as it currently stands arises from 1963 legislation called "The Trading with the Enemy Act." Now, 1963, the height of the Cold War, Fidel is acting as a paid agent of the Soviet Union. He's sending subversive agents into Latin America. He's sending troops into Russia throughout the period of the Cold War. It is very plausible, indeed implausible, to argue other than that he was indeed our enemy and Cuba posed a threat to the United States and our allies. The Cold War is over. Fidel may be a horrible man. There may be hundreds of political prisoners in jail, but as a matter of American interest, in what sense is Cuba our enemy? What can it do to hurt us?

SORZANO Let me correct a little bit in there. The reason why we first imposed an embargo in Cuba was the ... an economic tit-for-tat. Fidel had confiscated American property and the United States appropriately responded by having an economic measure - an economic hurt against the United States [sic] - we impose an economic pressure on him. Today, the reason why embargos are imposed and economic sanctions are imposed are two-fold. Number one, to express our moral disapproval of whatever that particular regime is doing. I mean, they have apartheid, maybe violating human rights, they may be doing a number of things.

ROBINSON So it sends a message.

SORZANO It sends a message and expresses the tradition of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy has never been Bismarckian. U.S. foreign policy has always had a moral component. As a matter of fact, we often get accused of engaging in moral crusades. So you cannot have just a Bismarckian power politics towards anything because it's not sustainable in the American political context.

ROBINSON You were raised a Catholic, I suppose, as most Cubans. Are you a Catholic still?


ROBINSON All right. The Pope visits Cuba in January. As a Catholic, you would view him as the vicar of Christ on earth ...

SORZANO That's right.

ROBINSON ...and he says in Havana, "Economic embargos are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy." Now you are making the point that the embargo sends a moral message to Cuba and to the world from the United States. The Pope himself has said that the needs of the poor in Cuba overwhelm any gesture the United States might make on moral grounds. How do you handle that?

SORZANO Well, rather easily. I would say it's ... make a distinction between that which is sacred and that which is profane. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's and you know the rest of the quote. The Pope, as the leader of a religion that has a rather rich doctrine, is involved with a variety of moral issues. Not too long ago in Texas, when they were about to put an individual to death, the Pope intervened and said he was against the death penalty for reasons of doctrine. The United States government and the Governor or Texas disregarded that because this is a secular issue, and so on and so forth. In the ... the Pope is a moral leader. He's not a foreign policy leader. There are good reasons of state to continue with a policy in Cuba.

ROBINSON Doesn't it make it harder as a political matter to keep the Cuban exiled community together on the embargo issue once the Pope himself calls for a lifting of the embargo?

SORZANO No, because the Cuban community, unlike the rest of the American community, was very aware of what the Pope was doing and saying in Cuba. And he mentioned the embargo one time.

ROBINSON That is true. I searched the documents. He only mentioned it once, although from our press, you'd think he never stopped talking about it.

SORZANO That's right. But the rest of the week he was in Cuba, he was a severe critic of the Cuban government, and even on the word when he was talking about embargo, when he said the famous quote "Cuba should open to the world and the world should open to Cuba", read that carefully again and you would see that it cuts both ways. It is indeed applicable to the U.S. policy towards Cuba, but it's equally applicable to the Cuban regime.

ROBINSON What do you do with Jose and what do you do with Cubans who are like-minded because the Pope himself has had a run at Jose and made no impact. What do you do?

RATLIFF By and large ... the Pope made all of the points while he was in Cuba that you say that he did, and I agree with those points, but I also agree, and many, many, many other people agree. In fact, most other people agree around the world if not in the polls in this country not only with the decisions, with his comments on Cuba, but also with his conclusion in the end that it still is immoral to have the embargo.

ROBINSON Let me ask you a point, though.

All right. Let's assume the embargo is intended to send a moral message. Does that mean the United States should stand behind it no matter what its impact on the Cuban people?


ROBINSON Whether this embargo has any practical effect or not, the Cubans are still free to trade with the Spaniards, they trade with the Canadians, they ... on and on and ... whether it has a practical effect or not, the most admired, freest, richest country on earth says: That guy is a tin pot dictator and that's that.

RATLIFF And we're going to make life more miserable for the people in the country in order to make that tin pot dictator realize it.

ROBINSON O.K. Here's the big answer. Is this hurting the Cuban people? Do you grant that the embargo makes the people of Cuba poor?

SORZANO No, absolutely not, because the argument is that the American embargo is somehow preventing Cuban children from getting medicines ...

RATLIFF Of course not. Of course not. To the extent that it has any impact ...

SORZANO Hey, hold on ...

RATLIFF ... it makes it that much more difficult.

SORZANO The fact is that our so-called friends and allies and even our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, trade with Castro. Castro can get anything he wants in the world market, but the fact is, as I mentioned before, he doesn't have any money. But my question to ...

ROBINSON Hold on. I just ... we'll get to your question in just a moment, Jose, but what I want to pin down is this: Jose says it doesn't make the people of Cuba poorer. They live in a dictatorial socialist regime which is run degraded their economy that they have nothing to trade - with anybody.

RATLIFF I've already said that at least 95% of the problems the Cuban people have are because of Fidel's economic policy.

ROBINSON So what you're doing ...

RATLIFF So what is the point of making ... of making a ... making ourselves the scapegoat?

ROBINSON Let me ask you one trick question.

RATLIFF What do you think he uses to explain to people around him why he is repressive and why the economy is bad? He uses the embargo to do that.

ROBINSON Does the embargo harm the people of Cuba materially?

RATLIFF Yes, of course I think it must. To the degree that it has any impact at all, it harms them materially.

ROBINSON But it's a small impact.

RATLIFF And United...

ROBINSON It's a small impact?

RATLIFF ...And you know that the people who primarily break the embargo have been the Cuban exiles who've sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Cuba over the recent years.

SORZANO Oh, but that makes a big difference.

RATLIFF So they're the ones who support the embargo more than anyone else and yet they break it more than anyone else.

ROBINSON O.K. Wait a minute. I just want ... let me identify one ... I'm still trying to get to the bottom of this. Jose, and I must say it sounds plausible to me that if Cuba is able to trade with anybody but us, it may be a little more difficult to get your toaster oven, but you can buy a Canadian toaster oven instead of an American one.

SORZANO True. Yeah.

ROBINSON So ... but you would grant that, that the embargo is not in fact impoverishing the Cuban people ...

SORZANO I stated that at the beginning.

ROBINSON ...but there may be some marginal difference. Fine, we can put that one away. Lifting the embargo ...

RATLIFF No, no, no, no. But a marginal difference in people who are living in that kind of poverty can still make a difference.

ROBINSON So you agree the Pope is mistaken. This is not ...

RATLIFF No, no, no. I said "a marginal difference" in a case when people are that poor can still make a difference.

ROBINSON All right.

RATLIFF Who are we in this country, eating pretty well and living pretty nicely, to decide that the Cuban people have got ... just to the degree that we can make it more difficult for them, even if we're not the main cause of it, we should make it a little bit harder, a little bit harder, and a little bit harder?

SORZANO He has just made outrageous charges. They are outrageous charges.

ROBINSON If something rises to the level of outrageous ...

SORZANO ... the Cuban-American community, and by the way, Bill, they're Cuban- Americans, they're not exiles. The Cuban-American community breaks the embargo, and the fact is that there's a big difference on sending IMF World Bank money to the government and sending money to Aunt Mathilda.

RATLIFF It breaks the embargo, nonetheless.

SORZANO Aunt Mathilda, O.K., because you ...

ROBINSON But they're permitted to send a certain amount of money to relatives.

RATLIFF They have not been permitted. They are now, but they were not permitted throughout this period of time.

SORZANO No, as a matter of fact, it is legal to send money but again, as you say, who are we to tell somebody that they cannot send money to the grandmother having misery in Cuba? So, first of all, it is morally correct to let a family take care of themselves, but number two, the fact that you're sending money to a family, to the grassroots, to not the government, you're almost being subversive in this particular case.

RATLIFF It is breaking the embargo nonetheless. That's the reason...

SORZANO It is not breaking the embargo.

RATLIFF Yes, it is.

SORZANO The law says - even the law says - that you can ...

ROBINSON The law says that even before this March loosening up...

SORZANO That's right.

ROBINSON ...even before the March loosening up, you were able to send $300 once a quarter to close family and friends, and then in March, the Clinton administration loosened things up a little bit more; you could send two hundred bucks more. It's very small amounts of money.

RATLIFF And a lot more than that goes in.

ROBINSON I have to say my impression is Bill's, that a lot more than that does go.

RATLIFF A lot more.

SORZANO Well, but ...

ROBINSON But your view is, it's humanitarian.

RATLIFF I'm saying ... I agree it's humanitarian ...


RATLIFF ...but it is, this is the reason you have to break the embargo to use .....

Besides the humanitarian argument against the embargo, there's a strategic one. Isn't it possible the United States could bring Castro down faster by embracing Cuba rather than isolating it?


ROBINSON The Economist magazine - smart guys, right? - "There is no surer way to undermine the Castro regime than to flood his streets with American tourists, academics and businessmen with their notions of liberty and enterprise."

SORZANO O.K. Now let me ask you this question. I am an American, I'm proud of being American, I like working with American companies, but for the life of me, I do not understand, and I cannot perceive what magic quality does an American company have? O.K. What touch of democracy and virtue does an American company have that, let's say, a British company does not have? The mother of Parliament trades with Cuba. A British company goes into Cuba and it does not have an impact on democracy and parliamentary democracy but suddenly, The Economist believes that an American company is going to go down there and, unlike Canadian companies and unlike British companies, it's going to have a magic touch.

RATLIFF It's not the American company. It's the far greater number of these ideas and the number of people. This is what I call "bombing Havana with Big Macs." And that's exactly what it is.

SORZANO And suddenly Fidel is Thomas Jefferson.

RATLIFF Oh, come now. I never said that.

ROBINSON Let's say the embargo is lifted. Let me play it out in my mind, O.K.?


ROBINSON The embargo is lifted. Americans start to go to the beaches of Cuba. I have been told - I've never been myself - but I'm told it's a very beautiful country and the beaches are absolutely magnificent. Boom! They go to the beaches of Cuba, investment.... Now maybe it's just on the fringes of the country because the hotels only go up on the fringes and Fidel can .... But still, it's Cuban people who are waiters and waitresses. They meet these people, they get tips, they see the way Americans live. Furthermore, there's some investment in the interior. The agriculture starts to .... There's agricultural wages go up. You get this .. .and people ...

ROBINSON ...and Fidel is 74 years old now. He's a windbag. We can out-wait him, make the people better off in the meantime.

SORZANO Peter, when you are a Canadian tourist, O.K., you go to a hotel in which Cubans in their own fatherland cannot go, this is tourism apartheid. If you're an American, you're any kind of foreign tourist, you go into a hotel in which Cubans cannot ... are not allowed to get in. So they are indeed separated by a "cordon sanitaire" in which all this business that we're talking about, all the mingling American Joe six-pack will go over there and say: Chief, why are you not a Democrat right now? You know, I mean that won't happen. That won't happen because they get picked up at the airport and they're shoved into the beach hotel and there is no contact, so this is absolute - somebody's dream. The fact is that there is one of the outrages of this regime is that it does not let the Cuban people go to its own beaches because those beaches are reserved for foreigners. I mean, this ... this is worse than under Batista.


If Bill opposes the Cuban embargo, how does he feel about economic sanctions in general?


ROBINSON Do you object to economic sanctions as a matter of principle everywhere?

RATLIFF Economic sanctions generally do not accomplish their objectives.

ROBINSON Lift the sanctions altogether?

RATLIFF Panama, Haiti ...

ROBINSON Would you like to lift the sanctions on Iraq today?

RATLIFF Of course.

ROBINSON You would.

RATLIFF Of course, of course I would lift the sanctions on Iraq.

ROBINSON Let me ask you a question.

RATLIFF The only people who are suffering in Iraq are the Iraqis.

ROBINSON Let me ask a question.

RATLIFF The same as was happening in Panama when we were ... had the sanctions against Noriega.

ROBINSON Libya? The sanctions on Libya?

RATLIFF I'm not going to get into every country. I don't know every country. I'll pick one I know more about.

ROBINSON Well, let me put it this way. Describe a circumstance...


ROBINSON Describe a circumstance in which you would consider economic sanctions justified.

RATLIFF Very rarely. I can't even think of one right offhand.

ROBINSON At the moment, you can't even imagine one. Fine. We have a bad boy country over there: somebody like Fidel, somebody like Noriega, somebody like Kadhafi - a bad guy is running it. Fine. And so far as I can tell, there are three things we can do about it: denounce them, use words, put them on the list of bad countries and give advisories to American tourists, but let people go, so we use words, or we use sanctions or we go to war. You drop out sanctions and you are left between impotence - mere mouthing of words - and going to war, and you leave no intermediate ground ...

RATLIFF The problem, Peter, is that usually happens.

ROBINSON You strip the President of the United States, who is charged with exercising the foreign policy of the country, you strip him of a very valuable tool.

RATLIFF In the course of the sanctions, the only people you're hitting, in every case and the ones that I mentioned, are the population as a whole, and what happens after that when that does not accomplish the objectives, then we go to war. Then we go to war. Sanctions are generally a step.

ROBINSON Who gets hurt in a war? Who gets hurt in a war? Ordinarily you hurt civilians...

RATLIFF Peter, if you hurt soldiers .... sanctions are a step to war.

ROBINSON ... you hurt soldiers.... It takes a lot of time to get to Saddam Hussein, and we still haven't even gotten .... In other words, it seems to me as though you're saying that as a moral matter, it is acceptable under extreme circumstances for the United States to kill civilians in war, but it is never acceptable for them ... for us to deprive civilians of Big Macs or Levi's.

RATLIFF I didn't say anything of the sort. What I said is ...

ROBINSON You're arguing that sanctions are wrong.

RATLIFF ...that we're using sanctions as a ... as another alternative in policy. I'm telling you that sanctions almost never work and they almost always, if you decide to get your objective, it leads to war.

ROBINSON If they don't work ...

RATLIFF An example in Panama with Noriega, with Haiti with the generals and Iraq. These are places in order when sanctions don't work, you make war.

ROBINSON If they have no effect ...

RATLIFF I'm not proving it, I'm simply saying ...

ROBINSON If they have no effect, why is Fidel...

RATLIFF They do have effect, and they affect the whole population.

ROBINSON Why is Fidel so desperate to get them lifted? Because he loves his people?

RATLIFF He can say that ... he can say that because he knows we're...

ROBINSON And you disagree?

RATLIFF ... because he can continue to denounce American imperialists and he knows we're too inflexible to change.

SORZANO Fidel wants to lift it and there's no doubt about it. That's why his diplomacy's all over the world moving to lift the embargo.

ROBINSON Because he wants the cash.

SORZANO Yeah, but let me ...

RATLIFF That's why he shot down the planes.

SORZANO Let me address the two issues. I've been in the National Security Council, and the reason for...

ROBINSON Which is a foreign policy apparatus in the White House.

SORZANO ... the reason why there are sanctions is because in a democracy like ours, when CNN brings in the news of some atrocity somewhere, there is a demand to do something. The executive has to respond. Congress starts screaming, right. And suddenly, we have the choices that you just mentioned, either to just deplore the problem or send in the marines. When those two things are not real options, then the only other thing that we can do, and it's powerful because we are an economic power, is to apply economic pressures of some kind, so sanctions happen. But ....

We've had an embargo against Cuba for more than 35 years, yet Fidel Castro is still in power. What else can we do about that man?


ROBINSON Can we get rid of Fidel?

SORZANO Through sanctions?

ROBINSON Through any means short of invasion.

SORZANO Short of invasion, I think we have to depend on Mother Nature.

ROBINSON Death. All right. Can you honestly say that it's the consensus among Cuban- Americans that American sanctions are not harming their cousins back home in Cuba?

SORZANO The overwhelming majority of the Cuban-American community supports current U.S. policy.

RATLIFF About 75%, according to polls.

SORZANO That's a landslide.

RATLIFF And, 75% also say it isn't working.

ROBINSON But, that could mean that they simply take Jose's point that it's sending a message, that it still makes a moral statement.

RATLIFF It gets us a lot of mud on our face all over the world, and to no purpose. There are morally despicable people all over the world that we don't have this kind of sanctions against. I think to the degree that this does make things any more difficult for people in Cuba, and to the degree that it does lead to some sort of conflict against Fidel, this raises the possibility of U.S. involvement - military involvement - which the vast majority of Cuban-Americans support and I think would be a disaster for the United States to become militarily involved in.

SORZANO Where have you seen ...

ROBINSON Sanctions create tensions that are likely to lead us sort of blunderingly into an invasion of Cuba, is that a solution?

RATLIFF Sanctions ... sanctions lead, if you want them to accomplish anything, as I've said in Panama and Haiti and Iraq and other places, frequently to a military intervention.

ROBINSON If your parallel is Panama, what is your worry? We start with sanctions and then we go in and get Noriega out. Now that's ...

RATLIFF Because we made a mess of the Panamanian economy for two-and-a-half years, and we've done the same with the Haitian economy. The Haitian economy is ...

ROBINSON Can anyone make a worse mess ...

RATLIFF ...a miserable economy.

ROBINSON Can anyone make a worse mess of the Cuban economy? You're not blaming poverty in Haiti on the United States, are you?

RATLIFF No, I'm not blaming poverty in Haiti, I'm saying that Haiti is more poverty-stricken today than it was five years ago.

ROBINSON Do you - you speak Spanish, you're from Florida, you have many friends who are Cuban - do you see movement among Cuban-Americans in this country on the question of sanctions? Do you see eroding support among Cuban-Americans themselves?

RATLIFF I think...I...yes, I think there is eroding support.

SORZANO The erosion, whatever it is, is not politically significant.

ROBINSON Fidel's 74; he could live to be 94. Do you think the Cuban-Americans in this country will remain strong enough on this issue to help hold sanctions in place for as long as it takes until the death of Fidel?

SORZANO I would say so, and the reason is that there is a question of symbolism. It's Fidel, and it's Raoul.

ROBINSON Raoul is his brother.

SORZANO Raoul is his brother. The rest doesn't matter. As long as those two guys are in there, any possibility of rapprochement is very, very slim.

ROBINSON Jose, Bill, thank you very much.


SORZANO Thank you.

ROBINSON One guest for the embargo, the other guest against, but both agree that the fundamental reason the people of Cuba are poorer today is not the United States embargo. After more than thirty years of the regime of Fidel Castro, no matter who the people of Cuba wanted to trade with, they just don't have the money to buy anything. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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