Cuba embargo isn't working but isn't going away
For many in Washington, Cuba just doesn't matter anymore.
By JOEL BRINKLEY | 12/18/12 11:17 PM EST
America's embargo on Cuba began its 53rd year this fall, and it's hard
to find anyone who thinks it's working. Even Cuban-Americans who hate
the Castro brothers and fervently insist that the embargo remain in
place generally agree that it has accomplished little, if anything.
Still, said Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuban émigré who is the director of the
Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami, "do you give away a
policy that has been in place for 50 years, whether you think it's right
or wrong, good or bad, effective or not — for nothing? Without a quid
pro quo from Cuba?"
Suchlicki came to the United States in the first wave of Cuban refugees
in 1960 after the communist revolution. His hardline views mirror those
of many in his generation. And for decades, it dominated the Cuba
discussion in Florida, a state presidential candidates have long
believed they need to win to be elected.
But today the Cuban-American population is more diverse, as the U.S.
presidential election last month showed. Previously, Cuban-Americans
regularly voted in favor of Republicans, who are generally staunch
embargo supporters, by 4 to 1. This time, President Barack Obama won
half their vote.
Now an argument can be made that if the half-century of political
paralysis on this issue can be overcome, both Cuba and the United States
would benefit. American tourists would most likely pour into Cuba,
buying cigars, staying in beachfront hotels — spending money in the
Cuban economy. And American businesses would find an eager new market
for a range of products beyond the food and medicine they are already
authorized to sell.
"We cannot afford an obsolete ideological war against Cuba," Richard
Slatta, a history professor at North Carolina State University who
specializes in Latin America, wrote in an op-ed last month. "The embargo
against Cuba denies North Carolina businesses and farmers access to a
major, proximate market."
Cuba experts say many business leaders, particularly, are making the
same case, especially now that the American economy has remained in the
doldrums for so long. They add that it's an obvious second-term issue;
Obama doesn't have to worry about winning Florida again.
But for so many people in Washington, "Cuba doesn't matter any more
now," said Ted Piccone, deputy director for foreign policy at the
Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council official.
"There's no political incentive" to change the policy — even though the
arguments for changing it are rife. Despite ample provocation, the U.S.
doesn't impose similar embargoes on other authoritarian states.
Late last month, for example, Kazakhstan said it planned to shut down
the last of its independent and opposition media, meaning "pluralism
would quite simply cease to exist in this country," Reporters Without
Borders said in a news release. But has anyone talked about imposing an
In September, Cambodia, one of the world's most repressive nations,
sentenced Mam Sonando, a 71-year-old radio station owner, to 20 years in
jail for criticizing the government on air. He'd been broadcasting for
decades. At about the same time, newspaper journalist Hang Serei Odom
was found dead in the trunk of his car, hacked to death with an ax. He
had been writing about illegal logging, a long-standing problem in Cambodia.
Despite that and much more, Obama visited Phnom Penh last month,
attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference. Has
anyone in Washington advocated imposing an embargo there? Suchlicki
said, "Maybe we should."
"Despite political tensions" with Venezuela, another authoritarian state
in Latin America, the State Department says: "The United States remains
Venezuela's most important trading partner. In 2011, bilateral trade
topped $55.6 billion."
The State Department endlessly debates this question about foreign aid
that applies to Cuba: Cutting off aid to a nation removes any ability to
influence it, one side of the debate goes. But the counterargument is:
Does that mean the U.S. should continue giving aid to a brutal,
repressive government? It's a quandary with no clear solution.
In this debate, Egypt is the state du jour. Last month, Rep. Vern
Buchanan (R-Fla.) issued a news release calling on "Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton to immediately suspend U.S. aid to Egypt, saying
'American taxpayer dollars should not be used to aid and abet any nation
that stands with terrorists.'" In Congress, he was hardly alone in that
view, but the State Department is resisting.
Of course, the U.S. embargo of Cuba arose from a totally different set
of circumstances, in 1960 at the height of the Cold War and Washington's
unremitting opposition to Communism. Cuba was allying itself with the
Soviet Union. Fidel Castro also nationalized American property on the
island. (Even as he announced the embargo, President John F. Kennedy
sent his aide, Pierre Salinger, to buy him 1,000 Cuban cigars, Petit
Upmanns, in the hours before the full embargo took effect.)
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991 that reasoning fell away, but at
that time the Cuba lobby in Miami was at its strongest. Looking at the
embargo today (Cuba calls it "the blockade"), its principal
accomplishment is that "it has given Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro the
perfect scapegoat on which it can blame all their problems," argued Ted
Henken, a fervent Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York. A few days
ago, Cuba's Ministry of Education asserted that "the 50-year trade
embargo imposed by the United States has severely undermined the
country's education efforts."
Piccone said most Cubans aren't buying that argument. "The average Cuban
is not blaming the U.S." he said. "I've seen polling on this. They're
blaming the system."
Henken said the embargo "has strengthened the revolution" and "ceded
Cuban policy to the most conservative Cuban-Americans." Even Suchlicki
acknowledges that the embargo has accomplished "nothing substantial,"
though he adds: "That's not an argument for changing it."
Some Cuba experts argue that allowing American tourists to visit Cuba
for the first time since 1960 might bring the beginnings of substantial
change by fostering greater prosperity. They point to China, a passive
agrarian society until the government opened the economy, pulling
millions of Chinese out of poverty. Suddenly, these newly prosperous
people began standing up to their government, demanding greater freedom
and opportunities. The same could be true for Cuba, Henken said.
President Raúl Castro has opened the economy a bit, allowing more free
enterprise. But apparently wary of this threat, his efforts have been
small, cautious and halting.
The changes "are only half-hearted in the sense that [Cuban officials]
are taking it slow," Piccone said. "The want to manage it; they don't
want to undermine their political position."
Henken jokingly calls Suchlicki "old Ironsides " for his continuing
support of the embargo. Most Cuban-Americans of Suchlicki's era agree
with his position. In Henken's view, though, "it's really hard to keep
justifying it since it hasn't borne any fruit." Cuban-Americans seem to
be coming to the same view. A recent poll by Florida International
University in Miami showed that just 50 percent of Cuban-Americans still
support the embargo, "well below its heyday," the university said in a
news release. "This, despite 80 percent believing that the embargo has
not worked very well or not well at all."
"We ought to change our tactics," Piccone said, and "think of other ways
to support our goals."
Right now, though, Cuba and the embargo are not occupying even a moment
of attention in Washington, given the urgent concerns about Iran, North
Korea, the fiscal cliff and so much else. But that will almost certainly
change next month.
In October, the Cuban government gave its people permission to travel at
will beginning in mid-January. Well, since 1966 the Cuban Adjustment Act
has afforded every Cuban who reaches the United States by any means
automatic refugee asylum. Now, with travel to the U.S. legalized, some
in Congress — including outgoing Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), a fervent
embargo supporter — are talking about hurriedly revising the act before
the new Cuban law takes effect next month and thousands of Cubans begin
stepping off airplanes.
Suddenly Cuba could be thrust to center stage in Washington again. That
may prove to be the time, some experts say, when serious discussion of
the embargo could be on the table again, for the first time in more than
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a
Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.