When Congressman Jeff Flake looks at the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, he sees Fidel Castro “laughing himself to sleep each night.” Not only has Fidel outlasted the eight U.S. Presidents who’ve upheld it; he must enjoy watching the Treasury Department hunt down Americans, such as the son of a missionary whose crime was to make a one-day visit to Cuba to scatter his father’s ashes near his old church.
When the Bush Administration looks at the embargo, by contrast, it sees a President whose bacon was saved in Florida in 2000 by the Cuban-American vote. Not to mention the ghost of Elian Gonzalez now hovering over Janet Reno’s gubernatorial bid to unseat Mr. Bush’s brother Jeb. Which means that if you’re White House politico Karl Rove, you’d sooner see your boss declare war on Canada than risk upsetting a key constituency in a key state by lifting the embargo with Cuba.
Welcome to the world of embargo politics, which pits principled anti-Communists (who oppose giving the slightest nod to Fidel) against equally principled free traders (who believe that the market is the best mechanism for undermining Fidel). Their dispute is coming to a head, with Jimmy Carter set to visit Havana, a White House review of Cuba policy in the works and a bipartisan House coalition getting set to challenge the Administration on a key plank of existing policy: the travel ban.
Now, back in the days when a younger Fidel was rapidly turning his island into a Soviet client state, an embargo had a certain logic. But with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and a graying Fidel looking at 76 candles on his birthday cake this August, it’s time to acknowledge that the primary victim of our embargo is not Fidel but the Cuban people.
“This is not a man who has missed too many meals because of the embargo,” says Arizona’s Mr. Flake, a leading member of the new Cuba Working Group, which has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. “Time and again we’re told we need the embargo because Fidel’s on the verge of collapse. After 40 years, it’s time to try something else.”
The “something else” is an amendment to a Treasury appropriations bill that would essentially rescind the travel ban by forbidding the Treasury from spending money to prosecute Americans who violate it. Last summer the amendment passed the House but was lost in the post-September 11 legislative mayhem. But it’s back again this year, and Mr. Flake says his friends in the Senate tell him it would have 70 votes there.
Admittedly this was before Monday, when the State Department’s John Bolton announced that Fidel had “at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.” But Americans are allowed to travel to two of the axis-of-evil countries (North Korea and Iran), and we trade with countries such as China, which we know has sold weapons technology to bad actors.
All of which puts the White House in a pickle. Only a few weeks ago, Otto Reich, the President’s point man on Latin America, flatly declared that the U.S. is “not going to help Fidel Castro stay in power by opening up our markets to Cuba.” The question forced by Mr. Flake and friends is whether the President will be willing to back that up by vetoing an entire appropriations bill.
Within the Administration, Mr. Reich has a number of Cuban-born allies, including Housing Secretary Mel Martinez and White House aide Emilio Gonzalez. Denounced by Fidel’s propaganda machine as the “Miami Mafia,” these are serious, admirable men. But not all their colleagues agree with them on the merits of the embargo and travel ban, though few have had the nerve to question it as publicly as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill did before Congress in March.
In his autobiography, Colin Powell notes that sanctions “rarely work” against dictators who don’t care about the suffering of their peoples. Just after joining the Bush ticket, Dick Cheney acknowledged on “Meet the Press” that “sanctions, frankly, haven’t worked very well in Cuba.” And prosecution of Americans is selective: Elite visitors to Havana get around it, but average folk get nailed by Treasury.
It’s true that easing the embargo might benefit Fidel in the short term, by releasing some of the pent-up discontent with his failures. And we sympathize with principled anti-Communists like Mr. Reich. But we yield to no one in our loathing of Fidel’s island gulag. And lifting the embargo would, as we wrote in these columns back in 1994, “help precisely those forces that are most likely to liberate Cuba’s economic and political power structure.”
Fidel’s era is passing, and tomorrow’s Cuba belongs to its Elians. Ending the travel ban and embargo will make it harder for the post-Castro era to be controlled by the same gang of thugs. Even if we have to wait until after the Florida election to hear a Bush official admit it.
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