On February 2, 1962, President John Kennedy called his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, into his office and instructed him to immediately find and purchase one thousand of his favorite Cuban cigars – H. Upmann Petit Coronas. A perplexed Salinger spent the better part of that night scoping out smoke shops and buying up as many of the Caribbean delights as he could find. When Salinger reported back to the president the next morning he presented him with almost 1200 H. Upmann Petit Coronas. After joyfully inspecting the lot, Kennedy opened his desk drawer and immediately signed Presidential Proclamation 3447 – outlawing all American trade with Cuba. As is the custom with most politicians, after securing his stash the president made it instantly illegal for other Americans to enjoy Cuban made cigars.
Such was the birth of one of the biggest failures in U.S. foreign policy – the Cuban trade embargo. It was meant to bring the downfall of Fidel Castro and his communist revolution, but 47 years and two communist dictators later, it still hasn’t accomplished its goal and there is no indication it ever will.
Then this week, really for the first time ever, there appeared to be cracks in Washington’s resolve to perpetuate this charade. The Obama Administration announced that it would be easing parts of the embargo against Cuba, namely restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban Americans to family in the island nation. Almost immediately, Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart issued a statement calling Obama’s action “a serious mistake.” Quoting the congressman’s sentiments further, he stressed the importance of U.S. policy to continue “to insist upon the three fundamental goals for Cuba enshrined in U.S. law which have long constituted a bipartisan U.S. Policy of State: The liberation of all political prisoners, the legalization of all political parties, independent labor unions and the press, and the scheduling of free, internationally supervised elections.”
All this bluster because the president is simply allowing Cuban Americans to resume normal relations with their kin in Cuba? After all, administration officials have indicated that they are keeping the rest of the embargo intact to provide “leverage” against Cuba to free all political prisoners. It is the opinion of this writer that the president should be commended for his humanitarian act on behalf of Cubans in America and Cuba. However, it is also my hope that this is just a first step in the process of normalizing relations between ourselves and Havana.
It is time for the trade embargo to be lifted in its entirety once and for all. With all due respect to Congressman Diaz-Balart our policy towards Cuba should be based on logic and not emotion. Yes, the Castro’s and their cronies are bad people, but our shortsighted policy has unfortunately not delivered the knockout punch we desired. In fact, generally speaking economic embargoes do not produce the results we crave. The recent examples are several – Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iraq. In North Korea and Zimbabwe sanctions contributed to mass starvation and disease outbreaks for the local population while not affecting the dictator at all. In Iraq a decade long embargo against Saddam did not instigate the masses of Iraqis to rise up against him; it simply made them more poor and allowed him to strengthen his hold over that society.
The same is true for the Castro boys. They have not been personally negatively affected by our policy and have even used it for scoring propaganda points within Cuba and other parts of the hemisphere. Since it hasn’t worked in 47 years to depose Castro Inc. then there is no logical reason to believe it will work in the future.
The best way for the US to influence the policies of foreign countries including Cuba is not through bullying or moralizing but through healthy relations, cultural exchanges, and economic partnerships. Hasn’t this been U.S. policy towards communist China for at least the last twenty years? Look at the enormous strides China has made at least in economic liberties. The hope is that economic liberalization will grow a strong middle class and lead to political and social change as well. When citizens of a closed society experience goods and ideas from the outside world and have the economic means to not tolerate harsh treatment from their leaders it can lead to good things. Japan, after World War II is a good example. At the very least, exchanges between liberalized countries and dictatorships will cause no harm to local populations like sanctions do.
Ending the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba will achieve a multitude of good objectives. It will terminate one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in U.S. history. It will help convert Cuba into a more liberalized country. It will preserve our national security because Cuba will not have to buddy up again with Russia for economic and military purposes. And lastly, it will benefit both countries economically. They will get to produce more cigars and we will get to consume them.