Five Decades of an Admittedly Failed Cuba Policy

by , September 22, 2009

U.S. citizens of Cuban descent are once again free to travel to Cuba and send an unlimited amount of money to their relatives on the island, but for the most part U.S. policy toward the communist nation hasn’t changed under President Barack Obama.

Since taking office, Obama – who called the nearly half-century U.S. embargo on Cuba a "miserable failure" as a candidate for Senate – has largely followed the lead of his predecessors, extending just this month a near total prohibition on trade and travel with Cuba for most U.S. citizens, declaring the embargo "in the national interest of the United States."

The U.S. State Department continues to list Cuba as one of its four officially designated state sponsors of terrorism, and the Obama administration insists on serious democratic reforms and the freeing of political prisoners as a precondition to restoring diplomatic relations.

Imposed in 1962 soon after Fidel Castro took power, the U.S. embargo has failed to achieve its ostensible aim of promoting serious democratic reform in Cuba – and the return of property nationalized by Castro’s regime to U.S. corporations. But as detailed in Daniel Erikson’s engaging history of recent affairs between Washington and Havana, The Cuba Wars, U.S. policy toward Cuba has not always been judged on the basis of effectiveness.

"It’s not like I delude myself that the embargo works or that it’s brought about tremendous reform on the island," Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of the congressional leadership, tells Erikson.

Maintaining that "the plight of Cuban exiles was similar to what Jews went through in the Holocaust," Wasserman Shultz says her support for the embargo is based on principle. "A relationship with the United States is a privilege," she says, "and an economic relationship is especially a privilege. And it has to be earned."

Wasserman Schultz’s remarks are one of the more revealing anecdotes Erikson, an expert on U.S. policy toward Latin America with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank, intersperses between detail after detail in his book highlighting the disconnect between the hyperbolic Cold War-era rhetoric often heard on Capitol Hill and the reality of a U.S. Cuba policy that has by all accounts failed miserably.

Based on a mix of his own interviews, travels to places such as Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military prison based in Cuba, and news accounts, Erikson paints a picture of a policy pursued not because it works at improving the lives of average Cubans, but because it helps politicians win support from hard-line elements among the politically influential Cuban exile community.

But attitudes are changing. Polls show Cuban-Americans, particularly younger generations, favor engagement with Cuba over confrontation. And even "Castro foes outside of Cuba who dreamed of bringing the regime crashing down have become increasingly aware that time is no longer on their side," Erikson writes.

Indeed, thanks to reforms enacted by Congress in 2000 allowing U.S. agricultural exports, sold on a for-cash basis to Cuba – corn, poultry, wheat – trade between the two official enemies has grown dramatically, rising to $700 million in 2008.

The Obama administration is also now permitting U.S. telecommunication firms to sell satellite and cellular services to their Cuban counterparts, and the U.S. and Cuban governments are meeting this month to discuss restoring direct mail service for the first time in decades.

There was a time, though, when it looked as if a U.S. government, buoyed by its perceived successes in Afghanistan, was looking to engage in some more regime change, this time in its own hemisphere.

In May 2002, John Bolton, the Bush administration’s top arms control official at the time, warned in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation that the "United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort."

Meanwhile, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was dutifully regurgitating claims of anonymous administration officials in breathless front-page pieces, writing that "Cuba has been experimenting with anthrax" and "other deadly pathogens."

And in Congress, Democratic lawmakers were marching in lockstep with a Republican president, as many did in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

"I am happy to see that the administration has finally come forth with an acknowledgment of Cuba’s capabilities," Erikson quotes New Jersey Congressman Robert Menendez, himself a Cuban-American, commenting after Bolton’s speech.

Ultimately the Iraq war proved too big a distraction for U.S. officials to pay much attention to Cuba, or the rest of Latin America for that matter. Yet fears that an aggressive U.S. administration was bent on invading Cuba – and the cover provided by the Iraq war’s domination of international media coverage – were used by the Cuban government to justify a crackdown on its domestic opposition.

As it had over the previous four decades, U.S. policy toward Cuba – and its vocal support for Cuban dissident groups – proved counterproductive to the U.S. government’s stated goals, aiding Fidel Castro as he ordered "that scores of innocent individuals be rounded up and placed in prison for lengthy sentences," writes Erikson.

These days there are some signs U.S.-Cuba relations may be thawing, though few believe Obama, given the number of competing domestic and international policy issues, is willing to upend decades of U.S. policy in the face of a diminishing but still influential lobby in favor of the embargo and its potential to sway a national election.

"In the meantime, the Cuba wars will continue to rage in Havana, Miami, and Washington," Erikson concludes in his highly readable and concise account of U.S.-Cuba relations, the fates of "11 million diverse and divided people" hanging in the balance.

"One hopes that a moment will come when the forces for peaceful reconciliation gather critical mass, but such a vision still remains on the distant horizon," he says.

(Inter Press Service)

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