July 7, 2000

Ending the Cuban embargo would perpetuate Castro's totalitarian control

Georgie Anne Geyer. Universal Press Syndicate. Chicago Tribune. July 7, 2000

WASHINGTON -- There is not even any attempt to hide the Cuban message now that the "lost" Elian Gonzalez is back in Cuba.

Indeed, the first salvos from Havana after the charming little boy's return rang clear: The American embargo against Cuba must go; the "Free Elian!" public rallies and televised discussions that enlivened Cuba during his "kidnapping" by America will continue; and Castro has every intention of continuing to use the case to rekindle his failing revolution. (In one of its more perverse arguments, the Cuban government even theatrically blames the death of Elian's mother on the embargo. It is not his own manifold failures that force Cubans to risk their lives at sea, Castro says, but the embargo, which weakens the Cuban economy!)

Once we stop floundering in all of this cant and dissimulation, we must examine the American side of this equation--and what these changes mean to the United States.

For the mood between the two countries has changed from night to day in those mere seven months since Elian was found floating desperately off Miami. The tremendous power that the Cuban-American community in Miami has exercised since 1959 has been tarnished and diminished as never before, while Cubans like Elian's father (and, thus, Castro himself) now come across as the reasonable ones. And the Clinton administration is emboldened once again to attempt to make peace with Castro--this time backed by American agricultural interests wanting to sell to Cuba.

This new "make peace with Cuba" lobby is to be found every day in the press and in Congress arguing that the lifting of the embargo would serve to open up Cuba, to give the Cuban people a whiff of freedom, and to introduce free trade (and American profits) to the closed island. But is that really true?

Oddly enough, until now the embargo has been defined in the U.S. almost exclusively in terms of ideological preference and/or commercial wish fulfillment, and pathetically little research has been done on what the lifting of the trade embargo would really mean. But now, we have a major "occasional paper" on the subject, which clarifies the results, were the embargo to be lifted.

Professor Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says lifting the embargo and travel ban, without meaningful changes in Cuba, will:

- Guarantee the continuation of the current totalitarian structures.

- Strengthen state enterprises, since money will flow into businesses owned by the Cuban government.

- Lead to greater repression and control since Castro and the leadership will fear that U.S. influence will subvert the revolution.

- Delay instead of accelerate a transition to democracy on the island.

- Allow Castro to borrow from international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc. Since Cuba owes billions of dollars and has refused in the past to acknowledge or pay these debts, new loans will be wasted by Castro's inefficient system and will be uncollectible.

- Perpetuate the control that the military holds over the economy and foster the further development of mafia-type groups.

- Negate the basic tenets of U.S. policy in Latin America, which emphasize democracy, human rights and market economies.

- Send the wrong message to the enemies of the United States: that a foreign leader can seize U.S. properties without compensation, allow the use of his territory for the introduction of nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S., espouse terrorism and anti-U.S. causes throughout the world; and eventually the U.S. will "forget and forgive," and reward him with tourism, investments and economic aid.

It is likely that, if we were to open trade, tourism and perhaps even diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since the early l960s, we would be in the same situation we find ourselves in with Russia. Remember the early '90s, when Washington was going to transform Russia through the same vehicles? Instead, Russians today angrily blame the U.S. for their failures. That is a very real risk of meddling innocently with totalitarian structures.

We can also be assured that thousands of well-meaning Americans would attempt to get to Cuba to save the Cubans from themselves. But Castro, one of the coolest and most manipulative customers of the 20th Century, will involve these new Americanos in Cuba and ensure that they cannot leave with their reputations intact. Then he will also have another guilty ready-made lobby to Washington, even while the "Free Elian!" rallies continue.

Finally, the United States does not have diplomats with enough shrewdness or savvy to deal effectively with Castro. Our present-day diplomats tend to want, above all, to make peace and to do good. There is almost an embarrassment, particularly in this administration, with the idea of representing American interests, much less with having the toughness to force through quid-pro-quo policies and programs that might seriously initiate change in Cuba.

All we would succeed in doing then is to help Castro cement his power--and, by the way, to look once again like a clueless superpower. That is why, when Americans now talk so enthusiastically about opening up Cuba and about liberalizing the communist state, I check for my wallet. I know who's already reaching for it.




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