Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Cuba Compartment

With the end of the Cold War, heralded by the collapse of the former Soviet Union and, with it, the lifting of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, U.S. foreign policy has experienced something of a paradigm shift. In truth, it was the final years of Soviet Communism, and the subtle changes in policy by Presidents Reagan and Bush, that created the first ripple that eventually became the sea change.

At a certain point, Reagan decided to engage the new leader in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was displaying a willingness to take an unusually fresh approach to the stagnant Soviet political model. Reagan normalized relations with the U.S.S.R., and opened a dialogue that had historic ramifications. He saw, in Gorbachev, a partner with whom he could push through nuclear arms treaties and other detente inspired bilateralisms that eventually led to the birth of a new Russia, as well as the unlikely outcome of former Soviet satellite states entering NATO and other pro-Western alliances and organizations only a little over a decade and a half later.

The U.S. began to interact vigorously, both diplomatically and economically, with the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, while at the same time expanding the same relationship with Communist countries in Asia like China and Vietnam. To this day, the economic and diplomatic relationships with China and Vietnam are encouraged by policymakers, and are credited, in large part, with the gradual movement these two countries are making toward free market capitalism and democratic reform. It has become the new paradigm that free trade with Communist countries provides an irrestible impetus for pro-democratic change, and thus should be pursued with enthusiasm. Thus far, the evidence has borne this theory out.

It is, however, noteworthy that this successful strategy was not adopted in dealing with every Communist country: specifically excluded were Cuba and North Korea. For the purposes of this discussion, I will deal with North Korea only on a cursory level by pointing out that North Korea's despotic leader Kim Jong Il is well aware of the effects of free market interaction on the power structures within previously closed societies. It is because of the very realistic fear of losing control of power in North Korea that he has been unwilling to open up his country and markets with any type of meaningful reforms. It is also worth noting that North Korea has been more isolated, secretive and inward looking than any of its Communist compatriots. Therefore, in dealing with North Korea, the new paradigm has not been given a chance to succeed, but not necessarily from a lack of will or initiative on our part, but precisely because it is so successful a strategy.

This leads the discussion to U.S. foreign policy regarding Cuba, the last remaining Communist country in the Western Hemisphere. Historically, the U.S. has had a confrontational relationship with Fidel Castro's Cuba, including the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, both occurring during the Kennedy presidency, with the latter crisis bringing the world closer to World War III than any other single incident in the 20th Century.

Economically, the United States has imposed a trade embargo against Cuba since 1962, three years after Mr. Castro seized power, though sales of food, medicine and other humane and benign items are allowed on a case by case basis. In addition, since 1962 the U.S. has incorporated a series of measures aimed at isolating Castro and starving his regime, such as travel bans to Cuba for American citizens as well as economic sanctions and penalties for foreign countries seeking to do business with the U.S. that also have business dealings with Cuba.

These historic policies, which mirrored the overall approach for dealing with all Communist countries during most of the Cold War, did not experience the same transformation that our relations with European and Asian Communist countries did during the last two decades of the 20th Century. Instead, the emerging conventional wisdom that opening up markets in Communist countries breeds democratic reform was rejected outright, and the old efforts to isolate Cuba were reiterated.

This counter-intuitive policy break raises several questions. Why this divergence in strategy? Why not adopt the program that appears to be meeting with success in areas as diverse as Vietnam and Poland? Is Castro's Cuba more repressive and violative of human rights than China, Vietnam or the European communist countries prior to their recent democratic transformations, thus making it more repugnant to transact business there?

I believe that most of the answers to these questions can be found in the strength of a relatively small voting block in Florida, namely the extremely active Cuban-American exiles.

As reported in a recent article in
the New York Times, Florida pollster Sergio Bendixen has observed that of the 600,000 Cuban-American voters in Florida "most Cuban-Americans who vote are rigidly anti-Castro." For these voters, taking a hard isolationist stance with Castro is an issue that they vote on with remarkable consistency, and any suggestion of normalizing relations is met with fierce opposition.

While appealing to this powerful and disciplined voting bloc in such an important swing state such as Florida (Bush v. Gore anyone?) is a bi-partisan goal, it is also worth mentioning that, according to Mr. Bendixen, "Of the 600,000 Cuban-American voters here, more than 80 percent supported Mr. Bush in 2000."

Perhaps Bush's support from this bloc can help to explain some of his hard-line policies regarding Cuba. "Last year, Mr. Bush banned cultural visits to Cuba organized by museums and other charitable groups, visits that President Bill Clinton began allowing in 1999." Also, "Congress voted to end the travel ban to Cuba last fall, but removed the provision from an appropriations bill after Mr. Bush threatened to veto it."

Most recently, Bush announced a series of rules that "limit Cuban-Americans to one trip home every three years and make it nearly impossible for most other Americans to visit the Communist island. They also restrict cash transfers and gift packages to Cubans."

"The rules, published over the last week, have been promoted by President Bush as a way to hasten the end of the Castro government and were formulated at the urging of Republican Cuban-American lawmakers and others" in Florida.

Considering how prominent a role the state of Florida is expected to play in the upcoming presidential election, the timing of Bush's announcement is probably not a coincidence. According to the Times, "Mr. Bush made his announcement seven months after he appointed a panel to recommend tighter sanctions and after Republican Cuban-American lawmakers complained that he should do more to bring down the Castro government. At the time, the lawmakers warned that Cuban-Americans might withdraw their support for Mr. Bush if he did not act boldly."

So what we have, in essence, is a policy designed to bring Castro and Communism down in Cuba, but the tactics being employed are not being dictated by the foreign policy experts who have seen success in action, but rather by a relatively small voting block that can influence elections in one state out of fifty. And the methods promoted by this group, isolating Cuba and cutting it off from the rest of the World, have been proven to be far less effective in achieving their stated goals than would normalizing economic and diplomatic ties, which hasten the establishment of free markets and democratic reform.

Some argue that Castro is a brutal and despotic dictator, and as such we should not deal with him. He is certainly repressive, totalitarian and brutal, there is no doubt about it. But is he any worse than China is today? What about China's extensive human rights violations, religious repression and gradual ethnic cleansing in Tibet? How about Vietnam and the European Communist states when we began normalizing relations with them? The answer is that Castro is no better or worse than other Communist leaders, and thus we should adopt the policy that is best suited to ending his reign (as in European Communist nations), or at the very least making it more humane and moving in the right direction (as in China and Vietnam).

As far as the policies we are employing now, they only make Castro stronger by allowing him to maintain centralized control over the entire economy, and thus the political and cultural institutions as well. We are keeping out the compelling allure of Western democratic capitalism, and this is doing Castro a favor. I don't doubt that these are not the goals of the Cuban-American bloc in Florida, but I think for them, because the wounds of Castro's coup are still so fresh, personal animosity has gotten the better of reasoned judgment.

Bush's latest overture has some very real human costs for American citizens as well. Consider these stories:

"Miriam Verdura could hardly wait to visit family in her native Cuba next month, her second trip since immigrating to southern Florida in 1999. But the Bush administration has dashed her plans with restrictions that start next Wednesday."

"Because she last visited in 2002, Ms. Verdura will be ineligible to return until next year. 'Bush's priority should first of all be to not keep Cuban families apart, because we suffer a lot,' she said."

"People are crying, saying, 'Please, can't you put me on a plane?'" Tessie Aral, vice president and chief executive of ABC Charters, said. "One said, 'I have to go because my mother is dying.' They can't wait another three years."

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