US Policy Toward Cuba: Still Stuck in a Time Warp

News Abroad

Mr. Bohning is a former longtime Latin America editor for The Miami Herald who retired at the end of 2000. His book, The Castro Obsession: US Covert Activities Against Cuba 1959-1965 was first published in hardback by Potomac Books in 2005. A paperback edition was published in 2006.

Bohning, a native of South Dakota, won numerous journalistic awards for his reporting while with the Miami Herald, including the Maria Moors Cabot award from Columbia University in 1975 and the Overseas Press Club's Hal Boyle Award in 1984 for best reporting from overseas (Grendada invasion-1984).

In a much ballyhooed October 24, 2007, speech at the State Department regarding U.S. policy towards, President George W. Bush cited the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – all former Communist Bloc countries – as “vital sources of support and encouragement to Cuba’s brave democratic opposition.” He called on other countries of the world to follow their example. 1

The response came a week later when – for the 16th consecutive year – the 192-member United Nations General Assembly voted 184 to 4 with one abstention to approve a non-binding resolution calling for an end to the U.S. economic sanctions on the Caribbean island. Among those voting for the resolution were the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

The four votes against came from the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Micronesia abstained. Albania, El Salvador and Iraq did not vote. 2

Nearing its half-century mark, the U.S. embargo against Cuba – which the Castro regime refers to as a “blockade” – has proven to be among the most enduring relics of the Cold War that ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

President Dwight Eisenhower imposed the first economic sanctions in July 1960 with a reduction in Cuba’s U.S. sugar quota and three months later ordered a partial restriction on U.S. exports to Cuba. However, most historians, as detailed later, attribute the beginning of a full-scale embargo to President John F. Kennedy in February 1962.

Whoever gave birth to the embargo, it remains in place today, as does Fidel Castro, ailing but still running Cuba by proxy through his brother Raul, commander of the Cuban Armed Forces.

Meanwhile, the embargo has become both a focus of increasing U.S. domestic debate over its usefulness and a political issue for 2008 presidential contenders, particularly in such states as Florida and New Jersey with their heavy concentrations of Cuban exiles.

In recent years, the embargo debate has crossed party lines, with Republican congressmen and state and local officials, mainly from agricultural states, joining – unsuccessfully - with Democrats to bring about its end.

At the same time, liberal Democrats from states with large Cuban exile populations often continue to support the embargo, fearing the political price they might pay if they did otherwise.

Virtually all the top tier presidential contenders – Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, along with Republicans Rudy Guiliana, John McCain and Mitt Romney – have indicated their support, with some qualifications, for retaining the embargo if elected. While supporting the embargo, Obama says that he would allow unrestricted family travel and remittances to Cuba. 3

A case can – and is – made for both sides of the issue. Those opposed to the embargo maintain it has helped keep the Castro government in power by providing a scapegoat for its own political and economic deficiencies. Those supporting the embargo insist it is a necessary tool to keep the pressure on the Castro regime as leverage to ease its dictatorial rule over the island.

Among the latter is Brian Latell, a retired CIA Cuba analyst and author of After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader.

“I don’t believe that the embargo should be lifted, abandoned or whittled away by the U.S. except in a reciprocal process by both sides that involve mutual concessions,” Latell said in a recent telephone interview. “It is sort of leverage for a political and economic opening. I don’t think we should just throw it away.

“I think the embargo has taken a heavy toll on the Cuban economy and created divisions in the Cuban leadership over the years,” says Latell. He adds that it has “obviously been a mixed bag. Castro has always used it successfully and creatively to rally popular support, to maintain discipline and loyalty in the leadership ranks, not always successfully, but has been more successful portraying us as a predatory monster.”

While defending it, Latell acknowledges the embargo is “highly paradoxical,” noting that the “U.S. is one of Cuba’s biggest trade partners…one way trade of U.S. agricultural sales. The other thing that goes on is that the Cuban people have received about $1 billion in remittances” dispatched to the island by relatives and friends abroad. 4

An opposing view, and one that I share, is that the embargo has done more to keep Fidel Castro in power than anything since the failure of the Bay of Pigs and President Kennedy’s “no invasion pledge” as part of the agreement with Moscow to resolve the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

A clear indication of that came in the late 1970s under the Jimmy Carter administration when travel restrictions to Cuba from the United States were dropped. American tourists and Cuban exiles flooded the island by the hundreds of thousands, taking with them dollars, photos and tales of a comfortable U.S. lifestyle. One could fly from Miami to Havana for a three-day weekend that included the fabled Tropicana show.

As Kenneth Skoug, the State Department’s Coordinator of Cuban Affairs during much of the Reagan administration, has written:

“The U.S. embargo on Cuba, established in 1962, was relaxed by President Carter. Cuba, moved by the need for dollars, permitted expatriates to return for visits, which had an unforeseen impact on the Cuban population. The contrast between the visitors’ relative affluence and the poverty of the average Cuban aggravated the latter’s despair.” 5

There seems little doubt that the economic and political unrest provoked by the hordes of visitors to Cuba taking advantage of an end to the travel ban resulted, first, in crashing of the Peruvian Embassy in the spring of 1980 by Cubans seeking asylum. That, in turn, led to the so-called Mariel boatlift, a time in which Castro opened the doors for those who wanted to leave. Cuban exile boats from Miami flooded the Florida Straits, returning with friends, relatives and anyone else who could squeeze aboard the craft, including criminals and other misfits.

Robert Pastor, the Latin America specialist on President Carter’s National Security Council Staff and now Vice President of International Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., is among those who argued that lifting the embargo would create more problems for Castro than maintaining it.

Pastor, in response to an email query, said he agreed “in substantial degree…that if we had lifted the embargo, it would have made it much more difficult for Fidel to keep control, and that the opening during the Carter administration did precisely that. But at his height, Fidel could have managed the change, and indeed, in 1995, he admitted to me in a conversation, that if we lifted the embargo, he would find a way to put it back in place the next day[emphasis added]."

“He understood, as few Americans did, that an opening with the U.S. would put him on the defensive. Today,” believes Pastor, “it’s truer than during the Fidel years. It would be much harder for Raul to control the flow.” 6

If one includes the limited sanctions imposed by the Eisenhower administration, the embargo has survived some 47 years, encompassing ten different U.S. presidential administrations and there is no end in sight. Each administration has tweaked the embargo to satisfy its own constituencies, more often than not tightening, rather than loosening, its restrictions.

The Reagan administration not only re-imposed the travel ban to Cuba revoked by President Carter, but fathered the creation of the Cuban National Foundation, a hard line and politically influential exile lobbying group headed by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, and approved Radio-TV Marti, the U.S.-funded, anti-Castro propaganda outlet.

But it was President Kennedy who imposed the most far-reaching of the embargo components, many of which remain in place today.

On February 3, 1962, he announced, in a brief White House statement, that all trade between the United States and Cuba, with the exception for humanitarian reasons of “certain foodstuffs, medicines and medical supplies from the United States to Cuba.”

Kennedy noted in the statement that the loss of income to Cuba from exports to the United States “will reduce the capacity of the Castro regime, intimately linked with the Sino-Soviet bloc, to engage in acts of aggression, subversion, or other activities endangering security of the United States and other nations of the hemisphere.”

The next day, a page one headline in the New York Times proclaimed: “PRESIDENT ORDERS A TOTAL EMBARGO ON CUBAN IMPORTS.” A secondary headline declared: “Trade Ban to Cost Castro Regime 35 Million a Year – U.S. Foods Excepted.” The total embargo became effective three days later. 7

Six weeks later, on March 23, 1962, Kennedy expanded the embargo to include imports of all goods made from or containing Cuban materials, even if made in other countries. And a year later, on February 8, 1963 travel to, and commercial transactions with Cuba, were added to the banned activities by U.S. citizens. In May, 1963, the Commerce Department announced the requirement of special approval for exports of all food and medicine to Cuba. 8

Subsequently declassified documents indicate Kennedy’s initial embargo action in February 1962 was predicated on a decision taken by the Organization of American States’ Foreign Ministers at Punta del Este, Uruguay, a the preceding January condemning the Castro government as “incompatible” with the hemispheric system and suspending it from further participation. 9

Lesser known is that the embargo decision was a component of Operation Mongoose, the Kennedy administration’s wide-ranging, post-Bay of Pigs covert action program designed to spark a popular internal revolt against Castro. Instead, it helped fuel the October 1962 missile crisis.

Mongoose was a multi-agency program devised in late 1961 by then White House aide Richard Goodwin and overseen by Bobby Kennedy, the President’s brother and U.S. Attorney General. Its day-to-day direction was under Air Force Brig. Gen. Col. Edward Lansdale, a somewhat quirky and flamboyant officer who had made a reputation in the Philippines as a counter-insurgency expert.

Landsdale, in a January 18, 1962, program review of Mongoose, noted under the heading of economic warfare that the “State [Department] is basing future economic actions, including plans for an embargo on Cuban trade, on the outcome of the forthcoming OAS meeting.…” 10

In a follow-up memo to Landsdale dated February 16, 1962, Robert Hurwitch, the State Department’s officer in charge of Cuban Affairs and the department’s representative for Mongoose, noted that “the outcome of the OAS meeting provided excellent political basis in a multilateral context for a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. Upon termination of the MFM [meeting of foreign ministers] the Department reiterated its previous recommendation that an embargo be imposed. The President took this action February 3, 1962.” 11

On two later occasions, decisions affecting the embargo under both the Johnson and the Ford administrations also were predicated on action by the OAS foreign ministers.

Venezuela convoked a July 1964 foreign ministers meeting in Washington after a Cuban arms cache destined for anti-government guerrillas was found on a Venezuelan beach in November 1963.

The meeting’s final resolution – with Chile and Mexico dissenting – called on member states to (1) sever diplomatic relations with Cuba; (2) suspend all trade with the island nation except for humanitarian purposes; and (3) suspend all sea transportation except that necessary for reasons of a humanitarian nature. 12

Again, in July 1975, in Costa Rica, the foreign ministers essentially reversed what they had approved in 1964 and resolved that each country was free to “normalize or conduct their relations” with Cuba as they saw fit. 13

While the action served to relieve the pressures within the OAS over Cuba policy, it did nothing to modify the view from Washington. It is a view stuck in a time warp through 47 years, 10 U.S. presidents and 16 years after the end of the Cold War.

  1. www.foxnews.com
  2. www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/gal10649.doc.htm
  3. Bachelet, Pablo. The Miami Herald, p6L, September 2, 2007.
  4. Telephone interview by author with Brian Latell, November 12, 2007.
  5. Skoug, Kenneth R., The United States and Cuba under Reagan And Shultz: A Foreign Service Office Reports. (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1996). p.4.
  6. E-mail to author from Robert Pastor. October 19, 2007.
  7. Bohning, Don. The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965. (Potomac Books, Inc. Washington, DC:2005; paperback 2006).
  8. Final Act. Eighth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Punta del Este, Uruguay, January 22, 1962.
  9. www.historyofcuba.com.
  10. Foreign Relations of the United States,(FRUS), 1961-63, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-62, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office) pps. 713,716.
  11. Ibid, pps. 743-744.
  12. Final Act. Ninth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Washington, DC, July 21-26, 1964.
  13. Final Act. Sixteenth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. San Jose, Costa Rica. July 29, 1975.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/25/2007

The case against any embargo as comprehensive as the Cuban one is actually overwhelmingly stronger than the pro- one.
First, the main objective of such embargoes - regime change - has never been achieved;
Second, it severely affected the very people (the populace majority) whom the US government, was allegedly
helping to have better life (in some cases directly ot indirectly claiming the lifes and health of many thousands of people);
Third - the major consequence of the second reason - the inhumanity of such economic sanctions alienated the majority in the affected country from the forces behind the imposed embargo, instead of causing the wide-spread dissent against the ruling regime;
Fourth, since the diplomatic relations and negotiations between the US and the targeted by embargo country are commonly non-existent, there is no way to employ strong leverage against "bad" regime the embargo allegedly offers.