Still Flogging a Dead Cuba Policy?

The policy of isolation towards Cuba is a bad hangover from the Cold War that the United States can’t afford to nurse any longer, foreign policy experts and Cuban-American political activists argued this week, both because of its unpopularity and a variety of concerns raised by critics of all stripes.

“The Cold War is over,” said Wayne Smith, the former chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, at a meeting of Cuban policy experts in Washington Tuesday. “Soviet troops are out of Cuba. Cuban troops are out of Africa. We must press for change.”

Smith’s current group, the Washington-based Center for International Policy, hosted the conference on the wisdom of the US approach towards the island nation of 11 million, which consists of a near total embargo on trade, a complete severance of official diplomatic relations, strict travel restrictions and the policy’s resulting humanitarian concerns, lost business opportunities and hemispheric international relations issues.

The 47-year-old policy has been in place in some form since Fidel Castro’s rebel forces took the capital, Havana, and began seizing privately-held property and businesses. Tensions were soon aggravated further by the Bay of Pigs fiasco – a failed attempt by a Central Intelligence Agency-trained group of Cuban exiles to invade and overthrow the revolutionary government – and the Cuban Missile Crisis, where US spy planes photographed Soviet missiles being assembled in Cuba, a scant 100 miles from Florida, causing hysteria about a nuclear attack.

The disengagement policy has since seen many incarnations, with the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, easing the trade of foodstuffs – which Cuba imports because of its own insufficient agricultural production – and travel back to Cuba for naturalized Cuban-Americans, only to have those restrictions ratcheted up again by the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

A wide array of experts from the diplomatic arena, former policy makers, prominent members of the Cuban-American community, and a panel of business and trade experts joined former US senator George McGovern at this week’s meeting to condemn the failures of the current policy and look forward to fixing those shortcomings after the next round of national elections – including a presidential election – in 2008.

One of the common complaints is that the tightened travel restrictions allow naturalize Cubans in the US to travel to Cuba only once a year. Critics say the policy makes families choose, for example, between visiting a dying relative and attending the funeral.

“At the heart of the human issue is travel,” said Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to then Secretary of State Colin Powell. “And it’s hurt the very people whose vote they’re trying to get – the Cuban-Americans.”

That Cuban-Americans are denouncing the isolation policy speaks measures about how widely it is viewed as a failure. The Cuban diaspora in the US historically staunchly supports isolation and, in its most highly concentrated areas in South Florida’s Miami-Dade County, votes solidly for conservatives who support the policy – electing three Republican congressmen to the House of Representatives.

Several of the panelists cited a recent Frederick poll that showed dissatisfaction with the policy, both nationwide and among 66 and 69 percent of Cuban-Americans in two of the Republican-controlled southern Florida districts. This has raised the hopes of Democrats to take the districts in 2008 if they put forward a viable Cuban candidate who can seize the issue, perhaps even taking a vital constituency away from the Republican Party in a crucial swing state that went to President Bush in the last two elections.

“US policy towards Cuba is a failed policy and the Cuban-American community is finally coming to terms with this fact,” commented Alfredo Durán, a Miami lawyer who is heavily involved with the Democratic Party and is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. “All indications are that we shall see this confirmed at the ballot box.”

But the members of a panel on potential business openings in Cuba lamented the unwillingness of Congress to affect any changes. An amendment to a spending bill proposed in July by New York Congressman Charles Rangel that would have lifted many of the embargo restrictions on Cuba was surprisingly defeated in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

Fifty-two of the 66 Democratic members of Congress who voted against the amendment have received campaign contributions from the US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, a small but well-financed organization that is part of the so-called Cuba lobby – a group of hard-line isolation and embargo supporting Cuban-Americans.

“This is clearly against the interests of the farming constituency of these congressmen,” said McGovern, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination last week.

An expert on agriculture who has made numerous trips to Cuba since 1975, and just returned two weeks ago from a fact-finding mission there, McGovern noted that the embargo policy has been a pet issue of his since his earliest days in the Senate, where in his maiden speech he warned of a “dangerous fixation with Castro.”

Indeed, the aim of the longstanding US policy has always been regime change either through invasion, at least a few assassination attempts, and the more recent and more passive method of radio broadcasts directed at Cuba that are intended to foment dissent amongst the people of the island.

“Many people grasp this policy because they think they are beating Fidel Castro over the head with it,” said Durán, adding that it is nearly 50 years later and Castro is still in power, so it must be serving him well.

Another concern raised by critics is that the isolation is further ruining US relations with Latin American states, noting that the closeness of leftist regimes of the continent to Fidel are creating a block of anti-US states. The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, has been particularly close to Castro as well as a major thorn in Washington’s side.

“The swiftest way to take some of the wind out of Hugo Chávez’s sails is rapprochement with Cuba,” said Wilkerson, reiterating a previous claim that this was the “dumbest policy in the world.”

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.