51 years later, a paradigm for how not to conduct foreign policy
By Edward V. Byrne for The Yucatan Times
October 26, 2011
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On the evening of December 31, 1958 the president of Cuba was a swaggering dictator named Fulgencio Batista. An old friend of Washington and of the American mafia alike, Batista knew the end was near. Cuban rebels, long his nemesis, were in the outskirts of Havana, and occasional gunfire could be heard in the distance. U.S. political support was quickly evaporating. Eisenhower administration officials told Batista that it was time to pack his bags. At a New Year's Eve party, over a champagne toast, he told his cabinet ministers that he was leaving the country in a few hours. At 3:00 a.m. on January 1, 1959, Batista boarded a plane with supporters and flew to the Dominican Republic, under the careful watch of U.S. officials. With him, crammed into the cargo hold, went cash and art work estimated at $300-$700 million USD, all of it property of the Cuban state.
A week later one of those young rebels rode into Havana in a jeep, dressed in trademark army greens and with a customary cigar stuck in his mouth. His name was Fidel Castro. Castro has managed to outlive or outlast 10 U.S. presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, Bill Clinton and George Bush II. He may just outlast Barack Obama as well. But the one thing Fidel Castro has not yet outlasted is the embargo.
The United States, at first delighted to be rid of the troublesome Batista, thought the young rebel might be at least a tolerable replacement. But his pompous talk and left leaning ways, coupled with a claimed affinity for communism of the international Marxist variety, quickly soured the relationship. Within months Fidel Castro began seizing private property, including U.S. corporate assets, and the cornerstones of the embargo were laid. Today it is a 51 year old project, and still under construction.
To describe what the U.S. embargo has done to the island nation would require a book. Economic ruination comes to mind. There is nothing in Cuba, of a material nature. Ask anyone who has been there. Nothing. That’s why Cuba’s Foreign Minister told the United Nations yesterday that his nation has suffered an estimated $1 trillion USD in damages during the past five decades. That’s why for the 20th year in a row, the U.N. called upon the United States to abandon the embargo immediately.
The hardship caused by the economic isolation of Cuba has often moved in unexpected directions. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a 2009 report -- harshly critical of the embargo on purely pragmatic grounds -- that maintaining it costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports.
The embargo is loaded with all kinds of absurd restrictions. If I want to fly from Mérida to Havana today, I can’t do so. Not legally anyway. A Mexican can. A Canadian can. Almost anyone else can. But I can’t, because I happen to carry a passport issued by the U.S. Department of State. U.S. citizens are not permitted to travel to Cuba absent special permission, and for “approved reasons.” Sure, I could travel to Cuba using my press credential, because there is an exemption under U.S. law for journalists and reporters. But then I’d have to notify Cuban authorities that I was traveling on press business. The Castro regime has been unfriendly to foreign journalists lately, and might not admit me. Especially if they’ve read some of the things I’ve written about El Comandante.
Why do we continue to drive a strategic politico-economic jalopy that has gotten us nowhere for more than half of a century – other than to incur the ire of the rest of the world, as evidenced by yesterday’s 186-2 U.N. vote?
One reason is that it politically benefits many people to do so. Voices on the right insist that the U.S. not diverge one iota from its failed policy towards Cuba, because that’s exactly what their constituencies want to hear. Florida, for instance, is full of livid anti-Castro types. Many are Cubans who left the island decades ago, or their children and grandchildren. One of their U.S. senators is Republican Marco Rubio. He’s a darling of ultra conservatives, and he’s been suggested as a Tea Party VP candidate. Rubio’s Cuban supporters love him, and he in turn loves to feed their dreams of someday returning to the island to recover homes and businesses long ago expropriated by the Cuban government. Rubio’s parents left Cuba in 1956, when Batista was still in power. Rubio himself was born in Miami, but he often refers to himself and his family as “Cuban exiles.” The Senator regularly waves his saber in Barack Obama’s direction, just daring him to alter U.S. policy towards Cuba one iota.
Speaking of Barack Obama, he doesn’t get a free pass on Cuba either. One of the reasons I voted for Obama was my firm belief that he would jettison antiquated diplomatic ways. In that regard, he’s been a disappointment. President Obama could commute the sentences of the Miami Five today (they’ve already been in prison for 13 years), send them out on the next plane to Havana and get Alan Gross back on a return flight. But he’ll never do so, because he’s far too afraid of conservative forces and what they might do to him in November 2012 if he adopts an enlightened foreign policy towards Cuba.
There are two other people who benefit from the Cuban embargo. Their names are Raúl and Fidel Castro. That may seem ironic, even illogical. But it’s true. At the same time the Castro regime so loudly demands an end to the U.S. embargo, it needs that embargo like a flower needs rain. The Castros are as steeped in Cold War ideology and thinking as is the United States. Without the pretense of a Yankee threat 100 miles to the north, they have no enemy. That enemy, and its 51 year old economic sword, is the secret behind their strength and their political longevity. Remove it, and they would quickly fall of their own weight, just as did the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc two decades ago.
Politicians never pay for embargos. Hungry children do. Sick people do. The elderly do. Students who want to educate themselves and become part of the interconnected world do. The Cuban embargo is a museum relic of the past, and it’s long past time to place it in permanent storage.
© Edward V. Byrne 2011. This article may be cited or quoted with proper attribution to the author but otherwise not reproduced in whole or in part without express permission.