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Nixon and China, Bush and Cuba?

by Stephen A. Allen on Feb 5, 2001

Fidel Castro is not exactly welcoming the new president of the United States with open arms. In his first public comments after George W. Bush’s inauguration, Castro said that he hoped Bush “is not as stupid as he seems.”

But there is one way that Bush could probably improve his image, not only in Castro’s eyes but in the eyes of millions world-wide. There is one way he could dispel some of the concern about his lack of foreign policy experience, one way he could make a mark on the world stage.

Normalize relations with Cuba.

This may seem like a strange suggestion to make to a Republican president, since the Republicans have been much more vocal in their criticism of the Cuban government than the Democrats. The Cuban exile community in Florida has traditionally voted Republican. Even Castro seems to prefer dealing with the Democrats. He never criticized former president Bill Clinton as harshly as he has criticized President George W. Bush.

The possibility of a U.S. reconciliation with Cuba seems as remote now as the possibility of a U.S. reconciliation with China did in 1972. The president in that year was also a Republican, and a man who had made his political reputation as a strident anti-Communist: Richard Nixon. But Nixon surprised almost everybody by visiting China and meeting with its leaders.

In many ways Nixon was the perfect person to begin the process of restoring ties with China. He certainly could not be accused of being soft on communism. He first came to national attention as a congressional investigator of communism and communists. As president he expanded and intensified the war against communist North Vietnam. His credentials in this respect were impeccable.

In addition, Nixon’s Republican Party was widely seen as taking a more unwavering stance against communism than the Democrats. But while the Republicans would have been eager to attack a Democrat who made overtures to China, they were reluctant to attack a president of their own party. This gave Nixon some room to maneuver without exposing himself to partisan attacks.

George W. Bush has a similar advantage. If Clinton had tried to restore relations with Cuba, the Republican Party would have attacked him as courting a brutal communist dictatorship. Clinton, after all, opposed the war in Vietnam, had visited Russia in the 1970s, and had close ties to China — suspiciously close ties in the eyes of critics of his fundraising tactics. The Republicans could have claimed that Clinton was ignoring the plight of the Cuban people, and they probably would have been able to derail any overtures to Cuba on his part.

If Bush tries to restore relations with Cuba, it would be difficult for the Republicans to attack him with the same fierceness. He is a fellow Republican, and sustained opposition to his policies would not be good for party unity. Also, Bush does not have the same political baggage that Clinton did. Like Nixon, he would have more room to maneuver without people second-guessing his motives.

The United States did not immediately restore all links with China in 1972, and there is no reason to expect that the break with Cuba would be repaired overnight. Restoring good relations would take time, with a certain amount of give and take from both sides. A good place for the United States to start would be in revoking the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

That act, which was designed to strengthen the American embargo on Cuba, calls for the imposition of sanctions on any foreign business that trades with the island. A number of nations — including some of America’s closest allies — have protested Helms-Burton as an unwarranted intervention in their internal affairs. It has also provided the Cuban government with an additional excuse to crack down on dissent at home.

Helms-Burton has never been fully enforced. It contains provisions allowing the president to suspend sanctions, and Clinton took full advantage of those provisions during his time in office. Bush could continue this practice, or he could work to repeal the act completely. Repealing the act would ease tensions with Cuba, improve U.S. relations with Mexico, Canada and the European Union, and deprive Castro of one of the weapons in his propaganda arsenal.

Last year, the United States gave China permanent Most Favored Nation trade status. There is an American ambassador in Vietnam for the first time in decades. There has even been a recent thaw in relations with North Korea, a country with which the United States is technically still at war. Why not a reconciliation with Cuba?

Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail:]