The Real Reason It's Nearly Impossible to End the Cuba Embargo

tags: Cuba Embargo

Peter Kornbluh is the director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University. This article has been adapted from Peter Kornbluh and William M. LeoGrande's new book "Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana."

“I think we should—we should advocate for the end of the embargo” on Cuba, Hillary Clinton said in an interview this summer at the Council on Foreign Relations. “My husband tried,” she declared, “and remember, there were [behind-the-scenes] talks going on.” The way the pre-candidate for president recounts this history, Fidel Castro sabotaged that process because “the embargo is Castro’s best friend,” providing him “with an excuse for everything.” Her husband’s efforts, she said, were answered with the February 1996 shoot-down of two U.S. civilian planes by the Cuban air force, “ensuring there would be a reaction in the Congress that would make it very difficult for any president to lift the embargo alone.”

The history of this dramatic episode is far more complicated than Hillary Clinton portrays it. But she is correct about one thing: Should she become president, it will be far harder for her to lift the 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba than it would have been when her husband first assumed the office. The person most responsible for that, however, is Bill Clinton.

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The beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency marked a change in tone on Cuba policy. Personally, Clinton understood the folly of a hostile U.S. posture toward the island. “Anybody with half a brain could see the embargo was counterproductive,” he later told a confidante in the Oval Office. “It defied wiser policies of engagement that we had pursued with some Communist countries even at the height of the Cold War.”

The Clinton administration’s early initiatives included public assurances that the United States posed no military threat to Cuba—to reinforce the point, U.S. officials began alerting Cuban authorities in advance of routine naval maneuvers near the island and opened low-level discussions on cooperation against narcotics trafficking. U.S. officials also dialed back the anti-Castro rhetoric. In Havana, the Cubans recognized and appreciated the change in tone. “There is less verbal aggression this year in the White House than in the last 12 years,” Raúl Castro told a Mexican reporter. Still, the administration worked overtime to assure the exile community and congressional Republicans that no opening to Cuba would be forthcoming. U.S. policy, stated Richard Nuccio, the Clinton administration’s special advisor on Cuba, was to "maintain the existing embargo, the most comprehensive we have toward any country."

Hard-liners in Congress were not reassured. Senate majority leader and Republican presidential hopeful Robert Dole declared that "all signs point to normalization and secret negotiations with Castro." In September 1995, the House passed legislation co-sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Dan Burton that prohibited U.S. assistance to Cuba until the advent of democracy and imposed sanctions against foreign countries and corporations that did business on the island. "It is time to tighten the screws," Senator Helms announced when he first presented the bill to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Congressman Burton predicted that passage would be "the last nail in [Castro's] coffin." ...

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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