U.S.-CUBA: LESSONS OF THE
Carlos Gutierrez and Jaime Suchlicki *, ICCAS
The Cuban leadership in Havana continues to try to woo the U.S.
administration into providing unilateral concessions to Cuba. The
embargo and the travel ban will be ended, they believe, as a result
of internal pressures in the U.S. and a more accommodating Obama
Yet, after seven years in power, Gen. Raúl Castro is unwilling to
chart a radically new course for Cuba or offer meaningful
concessions. Expectations remain that he will follow the Chinese or
the Vietnamese model and even find an accommodation with the United
We seem to cling to an outdated economic determinism in trying to
understand events in other societies and the motivations of their
leaders. Despite economic difficulties, Raúl Castro does not seem
ready to provide irreversible concessions for a U.S.-Cuba
normalization. He may release and exile some political prisoners; he
may offer more consumer goods and food to tranquilize the Cuban
population; but no major structural reforms that would open the
Cuban economy and no political openings.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that the Castro
brothers were not interested in friendly relations with the United
States. In spite of U.S. calls for moderation, the Castro brothers
carried out public executions in the island. In public speeches
Castro insulted President Eisenhower and followed them with
expropriations of American properties. Finally in July 1960,
Eisenhower was left with no option but to cut the Cuban sugar quota.
By then the Cubans had already arranged for the Soviet Union to buy
During the Cuban missile crisis, Castro sent a message to Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushchev calling for a preemptive nuclear strike
against the U.S. mainland. Even the Soviets were shocked by the plea.
In the 1970’s President Jimmy Carter tried to normalize relations.
He hoped to turn an enemy into a friend. When he was getting too
close for comfort, Castro offered to send this country several
thousand Cubans who had been given asylum in the Peruvian embassy.
Ships were invited to pick up “political prisoners and dissidents”
at the Port of Mariel. More than 120,000 Cubans left. Included in
the group of people seeking freedom Castro released some of the most
vicious criminals in his prisons; not an act of friendship and one
more factor that caused Carter to become a one term president.
President Clinton’s experience with Cuba was also problematic.
Clinton was expected to veto the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which
codified the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Before he could act, the Cuban
Air Force shot down two civilian planes over international waters,
killing three Americans and one Cuban-American. Clinton had no
choice; he signed the bill.
President Obama’s policy on Cuba seems more puzzling. Early in his
administration he lifted the limit for remittances to Cuba and
increased the frequency of visits to family members, both major
unilateral acts of good will towards an enemy. Castro (this time it
was Raúl) responded by jailing Alan Gross for up to 15 years in
prison for taking computers to the small Jewish-Cuban community on
the island. Once again, not the act of a regime seeking to improve
relations with an adversary.
The Obama administration should heed the lessons of the past. Cuba
under Raúl Castro remains a failed totalitarian state encrusted in
the anti-American policies of the Cold War.
Raúl has been a loyal follower and cheerleader of Fidel’s anti-American
policies and military interventions in Africa and elsewhere. In
1962, interpreting President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs failure as a sign
of weakness, Raúl and Khrushchev conspired to surreptitiously
introduce nuclear missiles into Cuba. Raúl supervised the Americas
Department in Cuba approving support for terrorist, guerrilla and
revolutionary groups throughout Latin America.
Unfortunately, not all international problems can be solved through
negotiation or with economic incentives. Some require significant
patience until the leadership changes. The Cuban case seems one of
* Carlos Gutierrez was Secretary of Commerce during the George W.
Bush administration. Jaime Suchlicki is Director of the Institute
for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami