The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Says Now is Not the Time to Ease Up on Cuba
President John F. Kennedy is said to have instructed his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to go out and buy as many Cuban cigars as he could get his hands on. Salinger returned to the Oval Office the next day with more than a thousand Cuban cigars. President Kennedy, the story goes, inspected the loot, then took out his pen and signed the Executive Order imposing the Cuban embargo.
Kennedy may have been the last American to legally stock his humidor with Cuban tobacco, but in signing the Cuban embargo he did the right thing. And bipartisan majorities in both Houses of Congress have supported the U.S. policy of isolating Castro's brutal dictatorship ever since.
In my career in the Senate, I've dedicated a great deal of my time and effort to defending smokers rights. But when it comes to Cuba, I put the human rights of the Cuban people far ahead of any smoker's right. We become a part of what we condone. And we Americans must never condone Castro's ruthless oppression of the Cuban people.
Castro is desperate for the United States to lift the embargo, because he is desperate for hard currency to keep his faltering Marxist-Leninist economy afloat. For many years he was able to withstand the pressure of the U.S. embargo, because the effects of the embargo were almost entirely offset by massive subsidies from the Soviet Union -- upwards of $5 billion to $7 billion a year.
Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s has the embargo begun to have an effect, not only in Cuba but across the region. The moment the embargo started having an impact, Castro's efforts to finance Marxist insurgencies across Latin America stopped, allowing the nearly complete democratic transformation of the hemisphere.
Flooding Cuba now with new U.S. investment and American tourists will do nothing to bring democracy to Cuba. To the contrary, it will give new life to Castro's crumbling regime. Here's why:
As almost any Cuban will confirm, the real cause of the misery of the Cuban people is not the U.S. embargo--it is Castro's Marxist Leninist economic system. Castro's Cuba is a brutal police state; Castro maintains power by fear, intimidation and deprivation.
His regime controls every aspect of Cuban life--access to food, access to education, access to health care, and access to work. And if you say the wrong thing in Castro's tropical gulag, you lose your job. If you refuse to spy on your neighbor for the government, you don't get to go to college. If you dare to organize an opposition group, you go to jail.
U.S. investment won't change this. It won't empower individual Cubans nor will it give them independence from the regime. Why? Because foreign investors cannot do business with private Cuban citizens--they can go into business only with Castro. Consider: it is illegal in Cuba for anyone except the regime to employ a Cuban citizen. Everyone works for Castro.
Foreign investors cannot hire nor pay Cuban workers directly. They must pay Castro in hard currency for the workers. Castro then pays the workers in worthless Cuban pesos, while keeping the rest. Under these circumstances, U.S. investment cannot help average Cubans--it would only help the Castro regime.
Consider a real-life example: Sheritt International is Canada's single largest investor in Cuba today. It is operating a stolen American-owned nickel mine at Moa Bay, where roughly 1,000 Cubans work as virtual slave laborers. Sheritt pays Castro approximately $10,000 for each of those Cuban workers. Castro gives the workers the equivalent of about $10 a month in Cuban pesos--and then pockets the difference.
The result? Sheritt provides Castro with a $10 million direct cash subsidy each year. And what does Castro do with that hard currency infusion? He uses it to pay for the ruthless and cruel apparatus that keeps him in power--and the Cuban people in chains.
Foreign investment can thus do nothing to promote democracy, nothing to promote entrepreneurship or independence from the state. What it does is directly subsidize the oppression of the Cuban people.
Tourism is another source of hard currency for the Castro regime that Castro is desperately seeking to expand. Every one of the tourist dollars spent in Cuba ends up in government hands--the Cuban government owns all the hotels, and it owns all the stores on the island.
And another side effect: Cuba has become the world's capital of sex tourism. Thousands of destitute Cuban women, who cannot survive in Castro's Marxist-Leninist economy, have no choice but to prostitute themselves with foreign tourists from Canada, Italy, Germany and other nations to get hard currency.
Many of these prostitutes--or jineteras--are schoolgirls as young and 12 and 13. Others are educated women--doctors and lawyers--who cannot earn enough practicing their professions under Castro to feed their families. Americans simply must not become a part of this degradation of Cuban women.
The United States must continue the embargo to keep up the pressure for change on the island, because if we don't give up our leverage by unilaterally lifting the embargo, Castro's successors will be forced to exchange normalized relations with the United States for a complete democratic transition in Cuba.
Fidel Castro isn't going to live forever. He is going to leave power in Cuba--either vertically or horizontally. And we need to start planning for the day when he is no longer there as the unifying force for tyranny on the island.
That is why maintaining the embargo, by itself, is not enough. We need to start helping the Cuban people prepare for that day, by helping them to create an independent civil society, helping them to build free institutions, and getting resources to the human rights advocates, independent journalists and democracy activists so they can expand their space in society--just as Ronald Reagan helped the opposition leaders in Eastern Europe (who are now the presidents and prime ministers of free, democratic nations).
Last year, along with two dozen co-sponsors, I proposed bipartisan legislation--the Cuban Solidarity Act--to provide $100 million over four years in humanitarian relief directly to the Cuban people through private charities on the island. We will pass it, and send a message to Fidel Castro--and to the Cuban people--that Congress and the Administration are united in our support for freedom in Cuba.
I look forward to the day when Americans can once again go to their corner stores and purchase Cuban cigars. But those will be cigars will have been produced by free labor in a free and democratic Cuba. To get to that day, we must keep the pressure on Castro, while simultaneously working to help the Cuban people build a free and independent civil society within the crumbling shell of Castro's teetering communist regime. * End the Embargo Connecticut's Senior Senator Calls for an End to an Embargo That He Says Does More Harm Than Good
By Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT)
There are very few foreign policy issues debated in Washington that prompt the level of vitriolic reaction that U. S. policy with respect to Cuba does. Because of the emotional nature of the subject, it has been extremely difficult to have a reasoned conversation about the nature of the policy, its objectives, or whether it has been effective. I believe that such a conversation is long overdue.
To gain a better understanding of this issue, I traveled to Havana last December to see for myself the impact of our policy. While there, I sought to meet with Cubans from all sectors of society, to hear them describe the current Cuban reality and how U. S. policy has influenced it. It was my first visit to Havana in more than 20 years. In many respects, the city looked very much as I remembered it, although the physical decay was clearly more evident.
During my weeklong visit, I met with a broad cross-section of Cuban society: with President Fidel Castro, at some length; other Cuban government officials, including the foreign minister and the president of the national assembly; Catholic and Protestant church officials; medical professionals and scientists; U.S. and foreign diplomats; foreign investors; human rights activists; foreign and local journalists. Not surprisingly, there were widely divergent perspectives on many subjects, especially the competence of the government in its management of the economy, the role of the church in Cuban society, the state of Cuba's public health system, the treatment of political and human rights dissidents, and the role of a free press. However, there was one subject on which there was general agreement, namely that U. S. policy with respect to Cuba was ineffective and counterproductive.
Frankly, to my mind it could hardly be otherwise. After all, the foundations of that policy date back decades to a time when the Soviet Union was aiding and abetting Cuban efforts to challenge U. S. interests in Central America and elsewhere. Today, the Soviet Union does not exist. The Eastern Bloc's subsidization of the "Communist experiment" in the Western Hemisphere has ended. Cuba has ceased its efforts to export revolution to its neighbors, perhaps because there is so little interest on their parts. Cuba no longer poses any threat to U. S. national security interests--this according to U. S. defense analysts.
Yet despite these concrete and visible changes, the centerpiece of our 38-year policy remains the same--an embargo that seeks to restrict trade, travel, and the flow of information to Cuba; and to thereby strangle Cuba economically. This hardline stance continues to hold sway among U. S. foreign policy makers, in large measure because they have been hamstrung by domestic political considerations and are fearful of provoking the ire of those obsessed with the island of Cuba and its personification in the person of Fidel Castro.
Cuba is not the only country in the world whose government is not democratically elected, where full respect for internationally recognized human rights is lacking, where there is little or no tolerance for political dissent, where the state-run economy is poorly managed, or where private enterprise is largely illegal. Some of the very same concerns have been raised with respect to governments elsewhere--in China, in Vietnam and even in Russia. Yet a discussion of these governments does not provoke the same kind of polarized debate that Cuba does. Nor has it led to the implementation of U. S. policies that in any way resemble our policy toward Cuba. There are no across-the-board trade or investment restrictions, there are no limitations on the freedom to travel. There are full and reciprocal diplomatic relations.
Defenders of the Cuban embargo strategy assert that by isolating the regime economically we will force Fidel Castro to capitulate and hold democratic elections. Or alternatively, that the suffering of the Cuban people will become so unbearable that they will rise up and remove their political leaders, by force if necessary. I saw no tangible evidence during my visit to Cuba that either scenario looms large on the horizon. Nor did anyone with whom I met suggest either was a viable possibility.
Having said that, there is no question that the U. S. embargo, particularly restrictions on the sales of U.S. food and medicines, has had a deleterious impact on the Cuban people. The two hospitals that I toured while in Havana were poorly equipped with medicines and medical equipment. The American Association for World Health is unequivocal in its view that "the U.S. embargo has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens." While there is debate over how to allocate responsibility for these shortages, it is indisputable that the Cuban people have been denied access to U.S. medicines and technology, and that as a consequence U.S. policies have played a role in creating these shortages. This finding was particularly troubling to me.
I left Havana determined to begin a new conversation about Cuba with my colleagues in the Congress, with Clinton Administration officials and with the American people. The first part of this conversation is going to be painful because it means publicly acknowledging what America's policy toward Cuba has been. Our policy has been one that denies food to hungry Cuban children; that severely limits the availability of medicines and medical supplies to the Cuban people; that denies U.S. citizens the right to travel where they choose; that denies American children access to certain innovative and highly effective Cuban vaccines; that prevents Cuban and American diplomats and military leaders from establishing meaningful channels of communication in order to prevent serious misunderstandings. In short, it is a policy that is inconsistent with America's values and self interests.
The second part of the conversation is a more positive one: it's about what we can do to change U.S. policy to bring it into line with our values and self interests. I believe that means going to the very heart of the current policy--the embargo. We should lift all trade sanctions against Cuba--if there are scarcities of food or medicines let there be no doubt about who is responsible. U.S. citizens should be permitted to travel freely to Cuba--they will do as good a job as any trained diplomat in conveying America's values and beliefs to the Cuban people. Prohibitions on U.S. investment should be eliminated, provided that Cuban authorities are prepared to allow U.S. companies to hire workers directly and to freely transfer funds. All restrictions on U.S. diplomatic contacts with Cuban officials should be eliminated.
Would such changes in U.S. policy convince Fidel Castro to hold elections, to allow Cubans to travel freely, to undertake market-based reforms, to respect human rights, to tolerate political dissent, or to permit a free press? I don't know. What I do know is that in the Soviet Union, in Poland, in Hungary and in China where we have pursued policies of engagement--encouraging official dialogue, normal commercial relations and expanded people-to-people contacts--fundamental changes are under way. What do we lose by trying it in Cuba? *
Log in if you're already registered.
Search our database of more than 17,000 cigar tasting notes by score, brand, country, size, price range, year, wrapper and more, plus add your favorites to your Personal Humidor.