Cuba embargo isn't working but isn't going away
Joel Brinkley, Politico
America’s embargo on Cuba began its 53rd year this fall, and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks it’s working. Even Cuban-Americans who hate the Castro brothers and fervently insist that the embargo remain in place generally agree that it has accomplished little, if anything.
Still, said Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuban émigré who is the director of the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami, “do you give away a policy that has been in place for 50 years, whether you think it’s right or wrong, good or bad, effective or not — for nothing? Without a quid pro quo from Cuba?”
Suchlicki came to the United States in the first wave of Cuban refugees in 1960 after the communist revolution. His hardline views mirror those of many in his generation. And for decades, it dominated the Cuba discussion in Florida, a state presidential candidates have long believed they need to win to be elected.
But today the Cuban-American population is more diverse, as the U.S. presidential election last month showed. Previously, Cuban-Americans regularly voted in favor of Republicans, who are generally staunch embargo supporters, by 4 to 1. This time, President Barack Obama won half their vote.
Now an argument can be made that if the half-century of political paralysis on this issue can be overcome, both Cuba and the United States would benefit. American tourists would most likely pour into Cuba, buying cigars, staying in beachfront hotels — spending money in the Cuban economy. And American businesses would find an eager new market for a range of products beyond the food and medicine they are already authorized to sell.
“We cannot afford an obsolete ideological war against Cuba,” Richard Slatta, a history professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in Latin America, wrote in an op-ed last month. “The embargo against Cuba denies North Carolina businesses and farmers access to a major, proximate market.”
Cuba experts say many business leaders, particularly, are making the same case, especially now that the American economy has remained in the doldrums for so long. They add that it’s an obvious second-term issue; Obama doesn’t have to worry about winning Florida again.
But for so many people in Washington, “Cuba doesn’t matter any more now,” said Ted Piccone, deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council official. “There’s no political incentive” to change the policy — even though the arguments for changing it are rife. Despite ample provocation, the U.S. doesn’t impose similar embargoes on other authoritarian states.
Late last month, for example, Kazakhstan said it planned to shut down the last of its independent and opposition media, meaning “pluralism would quite simply cease to exist in this country,” Reporters Without Borders said in a news release. But has anyone talked about imposing an embargo there?
In September, Cambodia, one of the world’s most repressive nations, sentenced Mam Sonando, a 71-year-old radio station owner, to 20 years in jail for criticizing the government on air. He’d been broadcasting for decades. At about the same time, newspaper journalist Hang Serei Odom was found dead in the trunk of his car, hacked to death with an ax. He had been writing about illegal logging, a long-standing problem in Cambodia.
Despite that and much more, Obama visited Phnom Penh last month, attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference. Has anyone in Washington advocated imposing an embargo there? Suchlicki said, “Maybe we should.”
“Despite political tensions” with Venezuela, another authoritarian state in Latin America, the State Department says: “The United States remains Venezuela’s most important trading partner. In 2011, bilateral trade topped $55.6 billion.”
The State Department endlessly debates this question about foreign aid that applies to Cuba: Cutting off aid to a nation removes any ability to influence it, one side of the debate goes. But the counterargument is: Does that mean the U.S. should continue giving aid to a brutal, repressive government? It’s a quandary with no clear solution.
In this debate, Egypt is the state du jour. Last month, Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) issued a news release calling on “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to immediately suspend U.S. aid to Egypt, saying ‘American taxpayer dollars should not be used to aid and abet any nation that stands with terrorists.’” In Congress, he was hardly alone in that view, but the State Department is resisting.
Of course, the U.S. embargo of Cuba arose from a totally different set of circumstances, in 1960 at the height of the Cold War and Washington’s unremitting opposition to Communism. Cuba was allying itself with the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro also nationalized American property on the island. (Even as he announced the embargo, President John F. Kennedy sent his aide, Pierre Salinger, to buy him 1,000 Cuban cigars, Petit Upmanns, in the hours before the full embargo took effect.)
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991 that reasoning fell away, but at that time the Cuba lobby in Miami was at its strongest. Looking at the embargo today (Cuba calls it “the blockade”), its principal accomplishment is that “it has given Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro the perfect scapegoat on which it can blame all their problems,” argued Ted Henken, a fervent Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York. A few days ago, Cuba’s Ministry of Education asserted that “the 50-year trade embargo imposed by the United States has severely undermined the country’s education efforts.”
Piccone said most Cubans aren’t buying that argument. “The average Cuban is not blaming the U.S.” he said. “I’ve seen polling on this. They’re blaming the system.”
Henken said the embargo “has strengthened the revolution” and “ceded Cuban policy to the most conservative Cuban-Americans.” Even Suchlicki acknowledges that the embargo has accomplished “nothing substantial,” though he adds: “That’s not an argument for changing it.”
Some Cuba experts argue that allowing American tourists to visit Cuba for the first time since 1960 might bring the beginnings of substantial change by fostering greater prosperity. They point to China, a passive agrarian society until the government opened the economy, pulling millions of Chinese out of poverty. Suddenly, these newly prosperous people began standing up to their government, demanding greater freedom and opportunities. The same could be true for Cuba, Henken said.
President Raúl Castro has opened the economy a bit, allowing more free enterprise. But apparently wary of this threat, his efforts have been small, cautious and halting.
The changes “are only half-hearted in the sense that [Cuban officials] are taking it slow,” Piccone said. “The want to manage it; they don’t want to undermine their political position.”
Henken jokingly calls Suchlicki “old Ironsides” for his continuing support of the embargo. Most Cuban-Americans of Suchlicki’s era agree with his position. In Henken’s view, though, “it’s really hard to keep justifying it since it hasn’t borne any fruit.” Cuban-Americans seem to be coming to the same view. A recent poll by Florida International University in Miami showed that just 50 percent of Cuban-Americans still support the embargo, “well below its heyday,” the university said in a news release. “This, despite 80 percent believing that the embargo has not worked very well or not well at all.”
“We ought to change our tactics,” Piccone said, and “think of other ways to support our goals.”
Right now, though, Cuba and the embargo are not occupying even a moment of attention in Washington, given the urgent concerns about Iran, North Korea, the fiscal cliff and so much else. But that will almost certainly change next month.
In October, the Cuban government gave its people permission to travel at will beginning in mid-January. Well, since 1966 the Cuban Adjustment Act has afforded every Cuban who reaches the United States by any means automatic refugee asylum. Now, with travel to the U.S. legalized, some in Congress — including outgoing Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), a fervent embargo supporter — are talking about hurriedly revising the act before the new Cuban law takes effect next month and thousands of Cubans begin stepping off airplanes.
Suddenly Cuba could be thrust to center stage in Washington again. That may prove to be the time, some experts say, when serious discussion of the embargo could be on the table again, for the first time in more than 50 years.
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.
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