A discussion started by Tacitus referring to the US embargo against Cuba as the "moral litmus test" of US Foreign Policy was picked up by Kevin Drum here and by Matthew Yglesias here. Here are my dos centavos:
The embargo has been in effect for some forty-three years. Much of the impact of the embargo was blunted over the years by the (roughly estimated) $3,000,000 in (on average) daily subsidies from the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Fidel Castro announced a period of austerity that he defined as el periodo especial en tiempo de paz (special period in the time of peace), and accordingly, the impact of the embargo became much more harsh for the average Cuban, not Fidel.
Castro is most certainly a megalomaniac (anyone who could subject people to listen for countless hours to his own voice must be enamored with the sound of same), but he is not an idiot. In 1993 he decriminalized the possession of dollars by average Cubans, obviously in an effort to bring more hard currency into Cuba. Yet when some softening of the position of the US towards the embargo or towards reëstablishing relations occurs, he appears to have deliberately sought to thwart such positions. Consider the following:
While clearly the economy and the Iran hostage situation were the main factors resulting in Jimmy Carter’s reelection defeat in 1980, the Mariel boatlift only exacerbated the situation (it also indirectly led to the defeat of Bill Clinton’s reëlection bid for governor of Arkansas). The net effect was to ensure that an administration with a much harsher position toward Cuba than the Carter administration would take office.
In 1992 the Cuban National Assembly changed its official status from an atheist state to a lay state. In 1994 agropecuarios (private farmers’ markets were allowed) and shortly thereafter, self-employed workers known as cuentapropistas (among them barbers, manicurists, etc.) were allowed to exist as well as private restaurants in private houses known as paladares were also allowed. Yet despite all this, in August 1994, the balsero (rafter) crisis erupted with thousands of Cubans fleeing by raft to Florida with virtually no interference from Cuban authorities. This resulted in changes in US policy toward Cuban refugees which meant that refugees that made it to US soil would be granted asylum and refugees that were intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba. I do not have any statistics on hand to see precisely what impact this change had on the numbers of those who attempted this dangerous means of escape from Cuba and as the Elián Gonzales case demonstrated, it didn’t put a stop to it, but I cannot recall an exodus on the scale of the August 1994 exodus since then. It also provided Castro a weak rationale for him to make the argument – however disingenuous – that those fleeing Cuba were fleeing for economic and not political reasons. Castro was then able to impact US immigration policy to serve his own ends and blame the embargo for Cuba’s difficulties.
In 1996, when President Clinton was extremely reluctant to sign the Helms-Burton bill, the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes took place on February 24 and within a month Helms-Burton was signed into law. I don’t believe that these two events were entirely coincidental. I suspect that Castro meant to provoke and knew the reaction that he would get.
In the period from 2000 to 2003 several events happened that seemed to indicate some slight additional thawing of relations between Cuba and the US:
1.) The more vocal elements of the Cuban exile community in south Florida suffered a major public relations black eye with the Elián Gonzales incident.
2.) A movement started in Congress (and gained some momentum) toward relaxing some elements of the travel ban and the embargo. One of the primary figures in this movement was conservative Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Mormon and former Executive Director of the Goldwater Institute.
3.) Former President Carter visited Cuba last year, met with Castro and called attention to Oswaldo Payá and the Varela Project.
4.) Major League Baseball sponsored games between the Cuban national team and, I believe, the Baltimore Orioles.
5.) Cuba was giving consideration to relaxing entry and exit permits for its citizens and visitors in February of this year.
The next month the dissident arrests took place, followed by the expected denunciations from the US, the human rights NGO’s and (I’m making a few assumptions here) unexpected reactions from the European Union, Portuguese writer and unreconstructed communist, José Saramago.
Granted, this is not ipso facto evidence that the embargo benefits Castro, but it does show a compelling pattern. The question then arises, if the Cuban embargo is the “moral litmus test” of American Foreign Policy, whom is the embargo helping? It doesn’t appear to be helping the cause of freedom in Cuba and dissidents such Payá, Elizardo Sánchez and Vladimiro Roca oppose the embargo. It certainly appears to me that the embargo is more of an effort to show that the US has a formal stance of toughness toward Castro’s Cuba. As Donald Gregg said about the administration’s position towards North Korea, that’s not a policy, that’s an attitude.
Why does Fidel Castro seem determined to eventually sabotage the above instances of thawing of relations between the US and Cuba? In my opinion, it’s because he uses the embargo as a rallying point when he feels threatened and the greatest threat to Castro’s continued rule is the Cuban population’s awareness that the US is not bent on the destruction of Cuba and that Cubans such as Oswaldo Payá have the potential to point the way for a different future for Cuba.
Some thoughts on the route to that future tomorrow or Friday.