By Richard Goodwin. The New York Times. July 5, 2000
ONCORD, Mass -- We tried to exempt cigars," John Kennedy told me in early 1961 when I brought him the order that imposed an embargo on trade with Cuba, "but the cigar manufacturers in Tampa objected. I guess we're out of luck."
He was right -- I was out of luck. But not the president. Somehow he never seemed to run out of Cuban cigars.
The embargo was part of our continuing effort to overthrow Fidel Castro, one weapon in an arsenal that included assassination, sabotage of the Cuban economy, guerrilla infiltration -- a kind of state-sponsored terrorism.
None of it worked.
The reason was simple. An overthrow required a strong, organized internal opposition. And that didn't exist. Indeed, we had helped neutralize it by our attempted invasion of the Bay of Pigs.
"I want to thank you for the Bay of Pigs," Che Guevara told me in Uruguay during an unexpected meeting at a party for a Latin American diplomat in 1961. "It solidified our rule and discouraged our middle-class enemies."
"You're welcome," I replied. "Now, maybe you'll invade Guantánamo."
"Never," he laughed.
At the height of the cold war, and with strong Communist movements in other Latin American countries, the unanticipated transformation of Cuba into a Communist outpost seemed a potential threat to our security. The policy of containment had broken down only 90 miles from Florida.
Yet little more than a year later, the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba changed the atmosphere, and Kennedy dispatched an emissary to talk with the Cuban delegate to the United Nations, in hopes of laying the groundwork for some rapprochement.
Then the president died, and the embargo was frozen in place for four more decades, long after the reasons for it had evaporated. In this time, Soviet Communism weakened and tumbled. The Communist-led movements in Latin America disappeared. We welcomed trade with the Soviet Union and China.
Yet through it all the embargo on Cuba stayed in place, the historical artifact of a cold war that had ended.
This anomalous policy owed its durability to Florida politics. A large and passionate exile community in Miami turned against any party and any politician who seemed willing to dilute our hostility toward the Cuban government.
President Kennedy had foreseen this when he made a futile effort to persuade new exiles to settle in other parts of the country. But they continued to come to Miami, and their intransigence and voting power threatened any presidential candidate with the loss of Florida's crucial electoral votes.
No president and no candidate for president was willing to take that risk. So for political reasons -- and only for political reasons -- the embargo has remained. And since Cuba was small and weak, politics could be allowed to determine policy.
Paradoxically, the embargo has only strengthened the rule of Fidel Castro, the lone surviving leader of the 60's, and enhanced his not inconsiderable stature in Latin America. A few years ago I went to a conference of Latin American leaders and functionaries in Cartagena, Colombia. When Castro
entered the room, the audience of committed capitalists stood and cheered. And not for ideological reasons. He had stood up to theÒYankees and won.
To the extent he has become an almost mythical figure, that myth rests on his defiance of our hostility. There can be no doubt that opening Cuba to a flow of American business and travelers would have a wholly salutary effect on the life of that country. It would also greatly improve the
prospects that the Cuban people will someday move toward a market economy and democracy.
That is, after all, the dominant lesson of recent history. The Cuban people have endured hardships and deprivation for decades.
It is time to welcome them back into the American community, not grudgingly, but with the generosity of spirit that we like to think characterizes our nation.
Richard N. Goodwin was a White House assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company