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Easing Up on Cuba

by Henry Butterfield Ryan on Jan 27, 1999

Henry Butterfield Ryan

After opening a few small holes in the U.S. embargo of Cuba, President Clinton has taken flak from all sides.

Many Cuban-Americans think anything that helps Cuba, such as relaxed restrictions on travel and trade, helps Castro and therefore is abominable. Meanwhile, other Americans and Cubans increasingly think it’s time for major steps, not baby ones, to improve relations. That means, end the embargo.

So what is this embargo, and why do we have it?

It has a long history. President Eisenhower initiated it in 1960, and President Kennedy strengthened it in 1962, hoping to topple Castro. An obvious flop in that regard, the embargo still has supporters because at least it hurts the Cuban dictator, even if it hurts his people more, as embargoes tend to do.

Back in the 1960s, when Castro presented a real security threat to the United States, Washington had few weapons to oppose him. Relations had been broken, the Cold War was at its peak, and the Soviet Union had become Cuba’s patron, pouring billions annually into its ailing economy.

Meanwhile, Cuba trained left-wing revolutionaries from around the Third World and tried to spawn Marxist insurgencies wherever possible. Kennedy responded with a hapless sabotage campaign, including bungled attempts on Castro’s life and a grotesquely unsuccessful CIA-backed Cuban-exile invasion in 1961 — and a tougher embargo.

Kennedy’s fears were far from fantasies. In October 1962, he learned that Castro had imported Soviet missiles capable of destroying U.S. cities. The result was the famous missile crisis that, until resolved, threatened to end the world.

But today the Soviet Union has disappeared, and Russia stopped subsidies to Cuba in 1991. Communism still exists in the world, but it is a diminishing force, and, without Soviet imperialism, it scarcely threatens the United States. Furthermore, Castro’s ability today to foment foreign revolutions is nil. Even in his heyday he never ignited a successful one outside Cuba.

But in 1996 he handed U.S. hardliners a trump card when he downed two Cuban-American airplanes close to, but not in, Cuban airspace. For a long time after that, no U.S. politician dared think about easing relations. That year Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, again toughening the embargo, which had been relaxed somewhat in previous years. The act also made the embargo law; now only Congress can rescind it. And as long as Jesse Helms heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that is highly unlikely.

But early last year Pope John Paul II changed the picture. In an historic visit to Cuba, he criticized the embargo, thus encouraging movement in the U.S. to end it. Shortly after the Papal visit, Secretary of State Albright hurried to Miami to discuss changes in Cuba policy with the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community there, then to the Vatican.

Next, President Clinton took a few cautious steps — severely limited by the Helms-Burton Act and the negative reaction he anticipated among conservative Cuban-Americans, who have driven U.S. Cuba policy for decades. He allowed direct Miami-Havana air travel for Cuban-Americans, permitted them to send money legally to relatives (they have long sent huge sums surreptitiously), and allowed medical supplies to be sent more readily.

This month he permitted increased air travel between the two countries, reinstated mail service, eased delivery to Cuba of agricultural products, and agreed to games between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team. Still, most Americans cannot visit Cuba without special government permission.

Many Cuban-Americans decry Clinton’s moves even though they improve life for members of that community and their families in Cuba. The administration replies that its steps weaken, not strengthen, Castro by bolstering non-governmental institutions.

More to the point, U.S. businesses, once shrill opponents of Castro, who seized their Cuban properties, now see Cuba relaxing restrictions on private investment. Some want to do business there. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pleads their case.

In addition, the embargo infuriates our allies because it calls for U.S. action against them if they trade with Cuba. They keep constant pressure on Washington to stop making its problem their problem. Furthermore, organizations with humanitarian concerns, such as the National Council of Churches, oppose the embargo, saying it mainly hurts those Cubans with the fewest resources.

Today, Castro is a toothless tiger internationally. It is in the best interests of the United States and the Cuban people to end the embargo, especially as it has not succeeded in bringing down the Cuban dictator in nearly 40 years.


Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.