With the exception of the Middle East peace process, the recent confrontation between the United States and Cuba has been President Bill Clinton's only foreign policy success. The administration that couldn't seem to get tough with anyone finally took a stand and forced Castro to back down.
The United States got exactly what it wanted--an end to the flood of over a thousand Cuban refugees streaming toward Florida each day--and none of what it didn't want--drawn-out negotiations regarding the longstanding economic embargo of Cuba.
These recent events offer the United States a perfect chance to reevaluate our policy towards Cuba a policy that has changed little since Castro took power more than three decades years ago. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has not availed itself of the opportunity, preferring instead to congratulate itself on its short-term victory and to ignore the larger implications of its myopic foreign policy.
When Castro first took power in 1960, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was in danger of heating up. Cuba would have made an ideal base for Soviet missiles, and the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba economically and politically was intended to dissuade Castro from cooperating with the Soviets. Also, the embargo was intended to turn the Cuban population against Castro.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was quite clear that a Soviet base in Cuba would spell disaster for American security. The United States's hard-line policy grew even harder, faithfully perpetuated by a succession of presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. Through Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, through the Vietnam War, Woodstock, disco, and Reaganomics, Castro still ruled in Havana, a perennial thorn in the side of the United States despite the crushing weight of the trade embargo.
Then, with little warning, the Soviet empire collapsed, shedding its Baltic republics, and leaving small Communist dictators around the world without sponsors. Suddenly, Castro was not a lethal security threat, but only a second-rate, graying tyrant on a small island off the coast of Florida.
Thus evaporated the primary reason for the economic war against Cuba. The United States continues to enforce it, partly out of habit and partly our of a stubborn sense of national pride. But these are hardly justifications for major elements of U.S. policy. As a result, the government now claims it maintains the embargo in order to coerce Castro to hold free elections and develop a free market economy.
This would be a very noble gesture on the part of the United States, if it were the real reason. In fact, however, the U.S. has befriended many dictators in the interest of national security--Ferdinand Marcos, Daniel Ortega, and Saddam Hussein to name only a few--and security objectives have almost always taken precedence over even the most egregious violations of human liberty. Castro is a bad man, but he is hardly the worst, and he would not have received such strong treatment from the U.S. if there had been no threat of a Soviet military presence in Cuba.
Even more importantly, the embargo is simply not effective. It has been maintained for over 30 years, but Castro is more firmly rooted than ever, and the poor have borne the brunt of the economic strangulation of Cuba.
Immediately after the recent flood of refugees began, Clinton prohibited Cubans in the U.S. from sending cash to their families in Cuba, in order to punish Castro. The big losers in this action were, of course, the impoverished citizens of Cuba, and Castro will only feel the effects marginally.
Perhaps the idea is to make the Cubans so miserable that they will violently rebel against Castro. Never mind that the embargo has failed miserably to remove Castro from power; never mind that it is also exceptionally cruel. Indeed, the embargo itself makes a mockery of the ideals of freedom and human rights that now serve to justify it.
If the U.S. really want free elections and a free market economy in Cuba, it must consider relaxing the embargo in exchange for concessions from Castro. The U.S. demands until this point have been all-or-nothing; relinquish power of else. This uncompromising stance was warranted during the Cold War, when national security was truly at stake and when Castro could rely on the Soviets for support.
Now, however, the U.S. is the world's only real military superpower, and Castro has more of an incentive to cooperate. He's even indicated that he wants to talk. And it will be easier to force him from power gradually, rather than demand a total, unconditional capitulation.
The U.S. has used this step-by-step tactic elsewhere with considerable success-China, for instance. By providing economic incentives to China, in the form of Most Favored Nation status, the U.S. has made some progress on human rights issues there. To be sure, these successes have been small, particularly when it comes to emigration laws and the treatment of political prisoners. But there has been progress, which is more than we can say for the Cuban front these days.
In the long run, trade with Cuba will help to foster democracy. As Cuban entrepreneurs come into contact with their counterparts in the free world, as democratic culture and values begin to permeate the country, the citizens of Cuba will demand the freedoms they deserve, and will grow more and more intolerant of their dictator.
U.S. policy may provides a temporary fix for the Cuban problem, but a comprehensive, permanent solution is only possible if President Clinton sits down at the bargaining table with his bearded rival.
David J. Andorsky '97 spent the summer researching foreign policy and other issues for U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Maryland).