Back to the Future on Cuba

It's time to change American policy towards Cuba

In 1960, a gallon of gas cost 31 cents, Princeton University undergraduates were all male, the Braves played in Milwaukee, and Fidel Castro's Cuba was under a U.S. trade embargo. Today, gas costs more than $2 a gallon, Princeton has a female president as well as female students, the Braves make their home in Atlanta, and Fidel Castro's Cuba is...under a U.S. trade embargo.

Cuba, once a bustling tropic isle, is now a museum housing ancient relics—the two most prominent being a dictatorship that insists communism has a future and an American policy that pretends economic isolation can cause that government's demise. Barack Obama was supposed to bring the forces of change to Washington. But his newly announced Cuba policy is mostly more of the same.

Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House concerns a court case that is notable only for its matchless longevity. "Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it," wrote the author. "The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.... (B)ut Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless."

That is our Cuba policy. For nearly half a century, we have been trying to bring down Castro's regime by prohibiting Americans from trading with Cubans. For nearly half a century, the regime has survived in spite of—or is it because of?—the boycott. And there is nothing to say the economic blockade won't go on for another half-century.

At this point, it has no great impact, because we're the only ones observing it. Cuba can buy from, sell to, and welcome just about anyone in the world except Americans. To suggest that U.S. sanctions are capable of isolating the island nation brings to mind the headline that once appeared in a British newspaper: "Fog Over Channel. Continent cut off."

Even Francisco Hernandez, head of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, which supports this economic punishment, conceded to The New York Times that the policy is merely "symbolic" and "not something that is that important anymore."

But the repeal of a largely symbolic policy is more than Obama is ready to contemplate. The administration portrays his new approach as a "major" shift. The Washington Post said he is "breaking from policies first imposed by the Kennedy administration." As if. He's doing little more than dropping a few extra restrictions imposed by George W. Bush, leaving the basic embargo encased in rock, like the fossil it is.

His most notable alteration is segregating our Cuba policy by national origin. Under Obama's plan, Americans who have relatives in Cuba will be able to travel there as often and as long as they want, as well as send all the money their cousins can spend. But Americans without family ties to the island remain under lockdown. The embargo is supposed to advance freedom in Cuba by denying freedom in the United States.

What is the logic here? If an influx of Cuban-Americans would weaken Castro's regime by exposing its people to our ideas and way of life, then an even larger influx of other Americans would do the same thing, only more so. If blocking travel and remittances by most Americans is supposed to topple the government, blocking travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans ought to accelerate the process.

But there is nothing to accelerate. Sanctions haven't worked, are not working and will not work—as 49 years of experience ought to have convinced us. Fidel Castro has outlasted 10 U.S. presidents, and with brother Raul now running things, his dismal but durable autocracy promises to survive indefinitely. Instead of weakening the regime, our policy may strengthen it by furnishing a perennial excuse for its dysfunctional economy.

Despite that, Obama is merely tweaking the policy he inherited. In most places, people who try things that clearly don't work eventually stop doing them. But in Washington, nothing succeeds like failure.

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  • Bob A||

    The Cuba embargo was not imposed until 1962.

  • ed||

    The good news is that we'll be able to acquire Cuban cigars again.
    The bad news is that they'll have a $10/stick tax added to them.

  • Wicks Cherrycoke||

    And this is the "major sea change" in American policy the media have been trumpeting? The mainstream media really do swallow anything Obama dishes out without question.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Yo! Fuck Castro!

    Inspired by Xeones

  • Naga Sadow||

    ed,

    TRADE WAR!!!!!

  • ed||

    It hardly matters. Dominican cigars have surpassed Cubans in quality and consistency.

  • Naga Sadow||

    ed,

    Really? I gotta say that is a boisterous claim. I don't get a lot of guests who smoke cigars but Hondurans and Cubans are all I hear about from them.

  • ||

    Cigars bring democracy, outrageous!

  • ||

    The good news is that we'll be able to acquire Cuban cigars again.

    Regardless of their legality, I won't buy Cuban cigars as long as the Castros get a cut of the business. Have a little self-respect, man. Don't enrich kleptocracies by purchasing overpriced status symbols. Any quality gap between top-shelf non-Cuban cigars and Cuban cigars is nigh-on imperceptible.

  • Kyle||

    Yes, but Che Guevara was a true hero.

    Dance, puppets, dance.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Kyle,

    I've heard that line before . . . JOE!!!!!!!!

    Joe'accuse!!!

  • ed||

    Don't enrich kleptocracies by purchasing overpriced status symbols. Any quality gap between top-shelf non-Cuban cigars and Cuban cigars is nigh-on imperceptible.


    Thus my point about Dominicans. I don't buy Cubans, but I smoke 'em as gifts. Had a pretty decent and authentic Cohiba handed to me the other day. But I'll take Dominican Fuente's any day. Too bad I can no longer afford them.

  • ||

    One disheartening conclusion that you might reach is that even if/when the US economic embargo of Cuba is lifted, the communist regime will stay in place.

    I know that it was common wisdom that if the US simply lifted the embargo, the Cuban government would lose a place to lay blame for their own failures.

    And that the exposure to western liberalism, commercialism and capitalism would either transform the regime or lead to its downfall.

    All of the non-US economic involvement in Cuba does not seem to lead to any liberalization of conditions in the island nation.

    Of course, the freedom of a US citizen would increase but would it come at the "expense" of the continued or improved health of the communist government in Cuba?

  • ||

    I also wonder that when the Embargo is lifted there will not be serious calls (in some quarters in Congress) for US "Reparations" to the Cuban regime.

  • fyodor||

    Not a libertarian,

    Hard to say exactly how lifting the embargo would affect Cuba's Communist regime.

    But it's hard to imagine how it could be more "healthy" than it is now, as firmly ensconsed in power as it's ever been.

    An American economic embargo is not what brought down the Soviet Union. Bringing down the Castro regime will ultimately be up to the Cuban people. Giving them one less bogeyman to blame their economic impoverishment on might help, though of course it's no guarantee.

    But if all lifting the embargo does is grant more freedom to Americans and maybe a tiny bit of residual prosperity (or less lack thereof) to Cubans, it will be well worth it.

  • ||

    I don't know anything about Cuba. Perhaps someone can help me.
    Why are we worried about an island with an economy that is probably smaller than South Dakota?
    Why are we pursuing a policy that has not achieved its desired results after 47 years of trying?
    I'll grant that Castro is a bad man, and his beard is scruffy, but who is the current policy designed to punish? Has Fidel missed supper because of the embargo?
    BTW, are all cubanas really bonita e guappa or have I just run across the cream of the crop?

  • ||

    but who is the current policy designed to punish?

    It is designed to reward sugar growers in South Florida, among others. And politicians pandering for votes in that state.

    The people it punishes, whether that is the intent or not, is Americans who could profit from trade with Cuba.

  • Luciano M||

    Unfortunately there are still enough Old Cubans(slowly dying) left in Miami with deep pockets, who fund the polititians who keep beating the same drum beat "embargo, embargo". You'ld think with all that great cuban music these so-called Cuban-American politicos would change to a more useful beat. Opening Cuba will not promote Fidel, it won't strengthen him, he has got two feet and one arm in the grave! He is not the problem, those who make a living off the embargoe are the problem. What it will do is open up a vital keyway to infest/infect Cuba with liberty and capitalism. Yes the companies that make money when family members here in the US send money or clothing to their families in Cuba will suffer, but what about the people suffering in Cuba?

  • Jose||

    "For nearly half a century, the regime has survived in spite of-or is it because of?"

    First the USSR and then Venezuala.

    Thanks for asking.

  • Jose||

    "Instead of weakening the regime, our policy may strengthen it by furnishing a perennial excuse for its dysfunctional economy."

    I very much doubt any Cuban buys into that excuse.

  • Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA)||

    "US "Reparations" to the Cuban regime."

    I'm on it. You know, Mrs. Casto was such a great hostess.

  • Jose||

    "BTW, are all cubanas really bonita e guappa"

    Si.

  • The New Guy||

    "I very much doubt any Cuban buys into that excuse."

    You'd be surprised. Tons of apologists for Cuban socialized medicine write off any percieved deficiencies as a product of them not having access to better equipment from US. 'Cuz everyone knows that a communist regime shouldn't be able to surpass the system it's trying to supplant. I'd like to see trade unembargoed just so's they haven't a leg to stand on.

  • ||

    The embargo hurts US reputation, and it is fairly useless. Unfortunately, the USA tends to have a fairly useless foreign policy in almost all areas.

  • ||

    The US should demand that the Cuban regime make concessions on human rights before lifting the embargo. I think the dissidents being tortured in Castro's dungeons would welcome that approach. So should all who care about freedom and human dignity.

  • nike shox||

    is good

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