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Jewish World Review March 15, 2001 / 20 Adar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Who needs the Cuban embargo? -- HAVANA | Forty years on, it is worth asking whether the American embargo against Cuba has accomplished its aim. Or, for that matter, whether anyone recalls what it was intended to accomplish in the first place.

If the intent was to bring about the end of the Castro regime, we know the answer to that question. There is not much residual affection for the author of the 1959 revolution among ordinary Cubans; and in his 74th year, Fidel Castro is no longer the bearded post-adolescent rebel in green fatigues. (Greeting Pope John Paul II in a blue serge suit here three years ago, he looked like a retired professor of romance languages seeking the papal blessing.) But the state apparatus is rigid in Cuba, and power rests firmly in Castro's deft hands. Dissenters not in prison -- the government admits to 400 or so -- are closely watched, and their numbers are probably doubled by informers.

If the intent was to cripple the Cuban economy -- leading, presumably, to discontent and rebellion -- the answer is more complicated. Clearly, Cuba is impoverished, and dangerously dependent on tourism dollars. But while the Castro regime points to the embargo as a source of misery, it should be recalled that the United States is alone in imposing an embargo. No other country in the world, including many of our closest allies, maintains any sort of economic sanctions against the Castro regime. British, Mexican, Canadian, German and Spanish interests are free to invest, to export and import, and defy the spirit and letter of the Helms-Burton Act, which punishes foreign businesses for dealing with Cuba. And Cuba remains impoverished.

The reason, of course, is not the U.S. embargo, but the nature of the communist regime in Cuba. Castro has no interest in convering Cuba into a Caribbean version of post-Soviet Eastern Europe: Foreign investment -- indeed, investment of any sort -- must be squeezed through the ideological blender that has brought such squalor to this island. Talk to any senior minister in the Cuban government, and it is clear that the only thing worse than the privations Cubans suffer because of the embargo is the prospect of capitalism breaking out in Cuba. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly, and a likely successor to Castro, was especially emphatic on this point: "Cuba is not privatizing its economy!" he declared -- a few moments before the lights flickered and went out in his office.

Which leaves politics. Who benefits from the embargo? Obviously, Fidel Castro is the principal beneficiary: The embargo not only tightens his grip on Cuba, but gives him a handy propaganda weapon. Every president who has ever been inclined to loosen the fetters -- namely, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- has been rewarded with an insult: The Mariel boatlift in 1980, or the shooting-down of the Brothers to the Rescue plane in 1996. Castro's chief asset is the American embargo, and the only challenge to his authority would come from its abolition.

In that sense, of course, the attitude of the Cuban exiles in Miami is paradoxical. Motivated, with good reason, by a fixed animus against the Cuban dictator, they are the primary constituency for the embargo. But the Cuban-Americans who are most vociferous about maintaining the embargo are the same ones who send dollars and medicine and scarce consumer goods to their cousins on the island. It is a double standard grounded in competitive emotions: Disdain for the regime that has brought such misery to them and their homeland, coupled with a natural desire to help their brethren.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if the Bush administration defied expectations, and offered Cuba "normalized" relations and a pledge to urge Congress to end the embargo. It would, of course, put Castr in a genuine predicament: He could hardly refuse what he has demanded all these years, but he has to fear the awakened expectations of Cubans.

In the end, the embargo is a self-defeating vestige of the Kennedy era. On a practical level, it does America no good by cutting off a market ripe for two-way traffic, and ceding Cuba to foreign traders who would like to make a buck. How does a box of Cohiba cigars endanger our security?

In principle, however, the embargo harms the very people it was intended to help, and comforts the tyranny it sought to undermine. Cuba is not an especially happy place, and remains a police state; but it is not a charnel house, and treats its dissidents with considerable less ferocity than our trading partner, China, or any number of African states. Castro has ceased exporting revolution in the hemisphere -- Che Guevara's skeletal hands now rest in a museum -- and the onetime scourge of Yankee imperialism is reduced to begging the Chamber of Commerce for dimes and nickels. The Cold War is over, our side won, and Castro will soon join Che on exhibit.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal