Cigar Aficionado

A Democratic View

New York Congressman Charles Rangel champions the need for a new, more open U.S. policy toward Cuba

I first met Cigar Aficionado publisher Marvin Shanken over lunch at his New York office in 1998. The meeting had been arranged by John Kavulich to discuss the status of U.S.-Cuba relations, which weren't great, but were better than they had been in some time, after nearly 40 years of the U.S. embargo. Kavulich headed the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, whose corporate members, such as Cargill, the commodities giant, were eager to exploit what they perceived as a possible opening to allow U.S. agricultural trade with the island.

A congenial host, Marvin showed me around his office, including a beautiful cigar humidor originally owned by President Kennedy. His interest in Cuba was obviously tied to the prospects for Cuban cigar imports, which were also banned by the embargo. He wanted my views on how the Clinton administration and Congress might respond to growing appeals for a change in U.S. policy. At the time, I was not as optimistic as some others who believed long-term change was really in the air for Cuba.

Public interest in Cuba during that period was about as high as I'd ever seen since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion or the time in 1960 when President Castro stayed at the Theresa Hotel in my hometown, Harlem, to protest the way he had been treated in "downtown" New York. Also in the late '90s, Americans who had no political interest in Cuba were swinging to the rhythms of the Buena Vista Social Club. This mellow, 1950s-style Cuban bolero band fascinated millions of Americans who first saw them in a public television documentary. They provided the background music for the growing movement on Cuba.

In smoking clubs from Wall Street to Capitol Hill, Cuban cigars were in. At the White House, Bill Clinton was easing Treasury Department regulations to make it easier for Americans to visit the island, and for Cubans to travel here. In 2000, a record 200,000 Americans visited the island (a number that declined almost 50 percent to 108,000, in 2004, after President Bush reversed Clinton's moves).

Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998 heightened the sense of excitement. I flew down with a religious delegation from New York led by Cardinal John O'Connor. Later, in 2002, former President Jimmy Carter was greeted by President Castro in Havana, a widely heralded visit in which Carter publicly called for more openness in Cuban society and a change in U.S. policy.

John Bolton, President Bush's hard-nosed former ambassador to the U.N., tried to scuttle the visit by raising charges that Cuba possessed weapons of mass destruction.

By 2002, the momentum toward a change in U.S. policy was strong enough to force the Republican-dominated Congress to yield to pressure from Democrats and the agribusiness lobby to legalize sales to Cuba of U.S. agricultural commodities. U.S. food sales almost immediately rocketed to nearly $400 million in 2004, but then declined 11 percent the following year because of new banking restrictions imposed by the Bush administration.

Fast-forward to July 2006. Word leaked out of Havana that President Castro was on his deathbed. By August, the president—who was celebrating his 80th birthday—relinquished power to his brother, Raúl Castro, leader of the nation's military. The reaction in Miami was one of the most sickening displays of political hatred that I've ever seen. In television broadcasts around the world, people described as Cuban Americans were shown dancing in the streets, expecting, if not hoping, that the man they called The Dictator would soon meet his maker.

I have always sympathized with Cuban Americans who suffered repression under the Castro regime. And I have no love of communists because it was a communist soldier who shot me in combat on November 30, 1950, during the Korean War. I have often said that no head of state should hold office nearly 50 years, as President Castro has. But I can't believe it's right in the eyes of God to rejoice over the death of another human being, even my enemy. I was so revolted by the behavior of my fellow Americans in Miami that I wrote a letter to President Castro expressing my sympathy and offering an apology for my countrymen's heartless celebration.

The sad fact is that much of the harsh feelings harbored by some people in Miami are like ancient feuds between families. They hold on tight to the anger, even if the reasons are forgotten. I once met a young man who said he admired my work in Congress, except for my position on lifting the embargo against Cuba. When I asked why, he told me that he had been told by his grandparents since childhood that Castro had stolen all of their property. I asked, What property? He said he didn't know. I pressed on: How much land, where was it, what was its value? He couldn't answer. Frustrated, the young man walked off saying, "We've got to end this conversation because you're causing me to lose my inheritance."

I remember on a visit to Miami being approached by a Cuban-American man in the street who congratulated me for opposing the U.S. embargo. I had been invited to address a rally by a group of Cuban-American leaders who opposed President Castro but thought a policy of dialogue, rather than confrontation, would be effective in promoting democracy on the island. Among my hosts were Francisco Aruca, a radio broadcaster and then-owner of a very successful charter airline company; Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo; and Alfredo Duran, all patriots who had served time in Cuban prisons after the revolution.

So I asked the man, "What about you?" His answer was simple, and I had heard similar words from African Americans during the civil rights movement in the South. "Rangel," he said, "you keep doing what you're doing. But me, I've got a job and a family to feed. I can't take any chances."

The Bush administration has taken a consistently hard line on Cuba and has reversed or impeded all of the reforms in travel and agricultural sales achieved during the heady days of the Clinton presidency. The losers have been the American people and U.S. business, not the hated Castro dictatorship.

Americans' right to travel freely to an island just 90 miles from Florida has been crippled. Travel by U.S. citizens has been reduced by 50 percent. Humanitarian and religious groups have been greatly affected. For example, U.S. Jewish groups, which prior to the Bush crackdown took care packages to the Jewish synagogue in Havana three times a month, now are restricted to six or seven trips a year. Cuban Americans have also been punished. Their visits to their family members in Cuba are now limited to once every three years [instead of annually].

On the business side, according to various estimates, U.S. companies are losing $3 billion to $6 billion in potential sales to Cuba. Once the No. 1 export market for U.S. rice, prior to 1962, Cuba last year purchased a mere 150,000 metric tons valued at $40 million. Industry estimates put the potential size of the Cuban market that could be supplied by U.S. rice producers at four times as much, valued at $160 million. Rice and other agricultural sales have been held down by the Bush administration's financing and licensing regulations requiring cash payments and a letter of credit prior to shipment, requirements that have been relaxed for sales to other communist countries, including North Korea.

The administration has indicated it will settle for nothing less than regime change and the imposition of American-style democracy before agreeing to any relaxation of its policy. That standard remains despite the Cuban government's embrace of the American people following the 9/11 attacks, when Cuba voted with the U.S. on every U.N. resolution condemning terrorism. Following the Katrina disaster, our government even refused Cuba's offer to send 1,600 doctors to help the victims.

I do not believe that Cuba is faultless in its human rights policies and treatment of its people. In 2003, I was outraged by its arrests and later incarceration of 75 dissidents and journalists who were accused of complicity in U.S. attempts to subvert the government. In 1996, I loudly condemned the shooting down of two U.S. planes, resulting in the deaths of four Americans. I was not impressed by Cuban claims that they were provoked to their action.

However, I have long believed the best way to promote positive changes in Cuba is to fully engage the Cuban people, rather than attempting to isolate them. Expanding trade, educational, scientific and cultural exchanges of all sorts, by allowing Americans the freedom to travel freely to Cuba, would go further in promoting change in Cuba than our failed embargo has achieved in 50 years.

That is why I continue working on this issue, despite the steep hill left to climb. I have been working closely with my courageous Republican colleague Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has endured criticism from some in his party to advocate on behalf of Americans' freedom to travel to Cuba. I also continue pushing my legislation to lift the embargo entirely.

It's not 1998, but activists on the Cuba issue have returned to lobbying members of Congress in the hope that the new Democratic majority will make a difference in legislative efforts to change U.S. policy. Just as in 1998, I do not share the same optimism held by others who believe the death of Fidel Castro will make much difference in policy in Cuba or the U.S. in the short term.

Before the U.S. and Cuba can achieve normalcy in their relations, true diplomatic dialogue must occur. I have shared my biggest concern in that vein with Wayne Smith, the distinguished former U.S. diplomat who has worked on Cuba issues for many years. He told me recently that Cuban leaders have expressed their respect for me, despite my criticisms when they are wrong. I told Wayne, and he did not disagree: "If a congressman from Harlem is the only member of the U.S. government that the Castro regime feels comfortable talking to, then we're really in trouble."

Rep. Charles Rangel is a Democrat from New York.