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The Cuban Trade Embargo Paradox

President Bush is intent on toughening restrictions on Cuba, while the American people and the U.S. Congress are ready to lift them
Wayne S. Smith
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

U.S.-Cuban relations should be fascinating to observe over the next year or so, for increasingly the White House is moving in one direction while the American people and the Congress are moving in exactly the opposite.

President Bush seems determined to turn the clock back and adopt the most confrontational approach seen toward Cuba in many years. But most Americans and the U.S. Congress have concluded that the old policy of isolating the island nation doesn't work. Accordingly, this emerging majority wants to lift travel controls, remove restrictions on the sale of foods and medicines, and generally move toward a more open relationship with the island.

For his part, Cuban President Fidel Castro has adopted a more conciliatory approach, such as not objecting to the detention of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at the Guantánamo Naval Base. His attitude doesn't seem to presuppose a positive response from the White House, but presents an incentive to those in the Congress and the American body politic trying to change the policy.

For years, U.S. policy was in effect controlled by the hard-line elements in the Cuban-American community in Florida who wanted no engagement—or even dialogue—with the Castro government. They demanded that the embargo and all other sanctions be kept in place and even strengthened. To be sure, they were a tiny special interest group, but as few other Americans took much interest in Cuba, politicians tended to do their bidding. It was a classic case of the vocal minority bulldozing aside the silent majority.

All that began to change two years ago, however, with the Elián González case. The overwhelming majority of Americans were turned off by the attitude of the hard-line exiles in Miami who seemed willing to defy U.S. law, the attorney general and the obvious rights of the natural father. Americans simply recoiled at the exiles' demands that the boy remain in the U.S. Consequently, many Americans began to question the policy advocated by those exiles.

Meanwhile, the powerful American farm lobby demanded the right to sell agricultural products to Cuba, and American business interests requested the right to trade with and invest in Cuba. They and other advocates of policy change pointed out that the Cold War was over and that Cuba, according to our own Pentagon, in no way militarily threatened U.S. security. They argued that the whole thesis that economic denial would topple Castro or force him to democratize the island was demonstrably wrong, since in 40 years the strategy had not succeeded. We might accomplish far more, they insisted, by fostering trade and opening the doors between the two nations.

With pressures building from special interest groups whose views contrasted with those of the hard-liners in the Cuban-American community, Congress shifted its views. By the early fall of 2000, the House passed an amendment that authorized the sale of foods and medicines to Cuba and four other states: North Korea, Iran, Libya and the Sudan. At the last moment, however, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican majority whip in the House, almost single-handedly diluted the amendment as it related to Cuba by forcing the attachment of a provision prohibiting even private bank credits to facilitate sales to the island (but not to the other countries on the list). Cuba said this was discriminatory and insulting and that it would not buy so much as a bean from the United States so long as these credit restrictions were in place.

Undaunted, anti-embargo forces vowed to return to the issue in 200l and remove DeLay's restrictions. They had the votes and almost certainly would have succeeded. The House also easily passed a measure to deny the expenditure of any Treasury funds to enforce travel controls. The Senate was prepared to go even further, lifting travel controls altogether. Again, they had the votes to do it. But then came the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11. In response to a call to rally behind the president, the congressional leadership called for the withdrawal of all "contentious amendments." The authors of the Cuba-related amendments withdrew them—for that session of Congress.

That was perhaps the least of the changes resulting from September 11. The world underwent a sweeping political realignment, with Russia, China, India and Pakistan all suddenly aligned with the United States in the war on terrorism. Castro also condemned the September 11 attacks and terrorism in general. He expressed his solidarity with the American people and his willingness to cooperate with all nations in the struggle against terrorism. Cuba did criticize the massive U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan and the high numbers of civilian casualties. It never wavered at all, however, from its condemnation of the forces around Osama bin Laden.

Because of the contention between the United States and Cuba over the status of the Guantánamo Naval Base, Castro's graceful acceptance in January of the U.S. decision to detain al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners there was somewhat surprising. But his reaction was perfectly consistent with the antiterrorist position he had taken all along. It was accompanied, moreover, by expressions of a desire for a more cooperative relationship with the United States. Castro and other Cuban officials noted that the two countries were already cooperating to some extent in drug interdiction efforts and in handling problems of immigration. Why not in other areas as well, including the struggle against terrorism?

The Bush administration was not having any of it. It almost immediately answered that it had no intention of entering into a dialogue or of improving relations until Cuba held elections, released all political prisoners and made other fundamental moves toward a fully democratic system. The problem with that approach, as most of Cuba's human rights activists point out, is that it impedes rather than encourages movement toward the kind of changes we—and they—would like to see. As long as the United States is pressuring and threatening, the Cuban government will react defensively and emphasize the need for internal discipline. That is the antithesis of what is needed for positive change.

But, then, bringing about democratic reforms in Cuba is not the prime motivation behind the Bush administration's Cuba policy; rather, it is a domestic political concern. The president wants to see his brother Jeb reelected as governor of Florida this year, and he wants to win the state more convincingly in 2004 than he did in 2000. He believes that to do that, he must have the votes of the hard-line exiles; thus, he will avoid offending them at all costs.

The calculation may be wrong. The Cuban-American community is not monolithic and does not vote as a bloc. A growing segment inside the exile community advocates engagement with the present Cuban government. On top of that, many Floridians resent the power of the hard-line Cuban exiles and the tendency of politicians, the president included, to listen only to them. Their growing hostility could backfire on anyone trying to preserve the anti-Cuban status quo. But right or wrong, that is the president's calculation and he is likely to hold to it.

The hard-line exiles in Miami do not want any engagement with Cuba, and so there will be none. The president's only real concession was to offer foodstuffs to Cuba on an emergency basis after Hurricane Michelle. The previous year, the Cuban government had said it would buy no food from the United States so long as the DeLay credit restrictions were in place. Given the Bush administration's offer of "humanitarian donations to the Cuban people," Cuba reversed course. It refused donations, but said it would buy some $35 million in foodstuffs to replace stocks lost during the hurricane. In February, it expressed interest in buying another $35 million under the same conditions, but made it clear that it would not buy in greater quantities until the credit restrictions are removed.

But taking up where it left off last year, the new Congress is gathering itself to do just that, and also to lift travel controls. Will it succeed? And if it does, will the president go against majority public opinion and veto the legislation? Stay tuned!

Wayne S. Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., where he runs the center's Cuba program.

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