PAUL CRESPO | Miami Herald | Editorial
With the blood of three executed Cuban boat-jackers barely dry and the voices of 75 imprisoned freedom activists freshly silenced, some Cuba-engagement advocates are restarting their misguided campaign to loosen U.S. economic sanctions against Fidel Castro.
These engagers continue using the cliche that the ‘‘40-year embargo’’ has failed and argue that engagement can still help reform Castro’s brutal dictatorship. But recent history clearly has demonstrated that engagement has been a policy failure.
Even as one prominent anti-embargo lobbyist group recently closed its doors in embarrassment, other engagement stalwarts continue their crusade. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., still believes that the embargo is a bad idea and says he will continue to try to see it lifted.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., recently stated: ‘‘If it were up to me, I would lift the entire embargo. . . . Let’s give Castro what he really fears: exposure to Western capitalism and thought. We’re just a scapegoat for him now, and it does the people no good.’’ As if the past decade of European, Canadian and Latin American trade, investment and tourism hasn’t provided Castro with enough ‘‘exposure’’ already. As if Castro’s secret police really needs a ‘‘scapegoat’’ to imprison and execute Cubans.
On April 30 a bipartisan group of senators (including Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.,) introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2003, which would lift restrictions on travel to Cuba. Others have come to their support.
‘‘The Cuba travel embargo has been in place for four decades, and it hasn’t done a bit of good,’’ said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “Allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba would be much more helpful in encouraging reform.’‘
Yet the past decade has proven otherwise. The embargo has been used to promote change in Cuba only since 1992, with the passage of the Cuba Democracy Act. Previously, the embargo was intended primarily to punish Castro for confiscating U.S. properties and to keep America from financing Cuba’s repression, military adventurism and terrorism.
In fact, shortly after the act’s passage, the Soviet collapse and the effects of the tightened U.S. embargo began having a powerful effect. As the Cuban economy entered a tailspin in 1992-1994, Castro experienced his then-worse crisis—with riots reported in Havana. Only then did the Cuban despot initiate some economic liberalization that allowed limited private economic activity on the island. This increased political dissent.
Had the economic pressure continued, these nascent reforms might have led to more reforms and dissent and provoked an unraveling of the system similar to what occurred in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev; itself a result of President Reagan’s ‘‘hard-line’’ tactics.
Instead, Europeans and others came to Castro’s rescue, beginning a decade of Western engagement with his decrepit regime. They, like many here in the United States, refused to see that Castro’s ‘‘reforms’’ (just as Gorbachev’s perestroika) were forced on him due to economic pressures.
As Western tourism, trade and investment gradually poured into Cuba, and President Clinton’s new ‘‘go-soft’’ policies began to take effect, the Cuban economy stabilized. By 1996 Castro halted or reversed most of these ‘‘reforms,’’ cracked down on dissent and encouraged tens of thousands of refugees to flee on rafts. Though Western engagement continued, there have been no further reforms, and there are still no Western supermarkets or convenience stores in Havana.
The truth is that engagement and other ‘‘moderate’’ policies not only have failed to promote reforms but actually have stifled democratic change in Cuba. Now Castro’s regime is in a far worse state than in 1993—it may well be Castro’s final crisis.
Castro has few options. His foreign debt has doubled, and many Europeans are withdrawing. Tourism is down substantially, and Cuba’s sugar industry has nearly collapsed after four decades of socialist mismanagement. A mass exodus is not likely with George W. Bush as president and Jeb Bush as Florida governor.
Ironically, it seems that only the United States can save the Castro regime now. We should not make the same mistake that the Europeans did in the 1990s. This isn’t the time to ‘‘go-soft’’ on Castro. Economic pressure is a key to regime change in Cuba.
Paul Crespo is a writer and public-policy consultant.