The Palm Beach Post is one of the few Florida news outlets to have the guts to say America’s embargo against Cuba is wrong (“Stop giving Cuba excuses,” editorial.) That’s a shame. After a policy has failed for 50 years, we should hear many calls for change.
In human terms, Yoani Sanchez and other Cuban dissidents, such as Oswaldo Paya (killed in a car crash likely caused by official thugs) have a persuasive argument: The embargo hurts ordinary Cubans. Moreover, the policy is a strategic failure.
I was there at the start in 1960, running errands for the U.S. delegation to the first Organization of American States conference about Cuba. President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, Christian Herter, laid the groundwork for the 1961 U.S. embargo. A year later, working in Guatemala, I was arguing for President John F. Kennedy’s proposal for an OAS embargo, modeled on ours, requiring Latin and Caribbean nations to break with Cuba.
There were reasons to contain the Castro regime, even before Premier Nikita Khrushchev put Soviet nukes in Cuba in 1962. A Soviet ally, Cuba had tried to overthrow the democratic government in Venezuela and supported insurgencies elsewhere. An OAS embargo could have been a useful short-term measure, to pressure Cuba to stop meddling. But it was sold, instead, as a sure-fire way to oust Fidel Castro, a proposition that became an article of faith in Florida and the halls of Congress.
Fast forward to the early 1970s. The State Department’s Policy Planning staff asked four of us from different offices to review the embargo. Our conclusion: It had made Cubans more miserable but had not loosened Castro’s grip. Instead, he had turned the embargo to great advantage, using it to justify dictatorship and a terrible economy.
The study was quietly buried, but it did persuade William Rogers, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s top adviser for Latin America, that trying to force neighbors to honor the OAS embargo got in the way of our larger interests in Latin America. Dr. Kissinger instructed us to negotiate repeal of the OAS measures, so long as the resolution provided international legal cover for maintaining the embargo, mandated by Congress. The final version, which I worked out in the spring of 1975 with Mexico’s elder statesman, Rafael de la Colina, “left free” OAS nations to conduct relations with Cuba as they saw fit.
Today, the U.S. embargo, like the long-dead OAS sanctions, hinders larger U.S. interests, playing into an ugly narrative of American decline and incompetence, fostered by the late Hugo Chavez and his less charming imitators. It will be a distraction for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should they, as expected, place more emphasis on Latin America.
There is another strategic reason, rooted in history, for loosening the embargo: to promote liberalization. Consider Spain, where I saw how economic influences from Europe and the U.S. help prepare for a democratic transition from the long rule of the caudillo, Francisco Franco. More striking is how loosening economic restrictions under presidents Carter and Reagan helped Eastern Europe break free from the Soviets.
Mark me as skeptical about Raul Castro’s interest in improved relations. If sincere, he would have long ago released Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, jailed on trumped-up spy charges. No, we will have to do this ourselves, not seek gestures from a regime that needs an enemy. If history is any guide, relaxing the embargo — except for Cuba’s military and agencies of repression — will loosen the winds of economic change and foster political liberalization for a post-Castro era, which is almost upon us.
Frank McNeil served as deputy U.S. representative to the Organization of American States during some events described here. He later served as ambassador to Costa Rica and President Ronald Reagan’s special emissary for the 1983 Grenada mission. He lives in Boca Raton.