BlogCuba – The Waterglass

I dont recall how it was that I first ventured into the Waterglass, but right there on the sidebar was a heading that said “Causes.” Right below the heading was Political Prisoners in Cuba. That was it for me. This group blog became a member in my Miami Mafia and an immediate addition to my blogroll. Their entry to BlogCuba is perhaps one of the best debates I’ve read so far on the Cuban embargo and travel restrictions. Gracias Amigos! Exelente.

To Embargo or Not to Embargo

For the Waterglass’s entry, I gave my fellow bloggers a question to answer: “Should the travel and trade embargo the U.S. has with Cuba continue, or should it be ended?” Here are the responses:

Ray takes a more historical view:

It has been almost 46 years since Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country on a midnight flight to enjoy the proceeds of his Swiss bank accounts on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Four days later Fidel entered Havana in triumph at the head of a ragtag guerrilla army after three years in the hills evading and snipping at the heels of Batista’s notoriously corrupt and ineffective army. Most of the U.S. government and almost every major newspaper and TV commentator in the United States welcomed the demise of Batista and the success of Castro. The Beard, as he was known at the time, met with Vice President Nixon and was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow and Jack Parr. In 1959 and for much of 1960, there was little or no hostility from any source in America. In fact, there existed a significant amount of admiration for the Beard in this country. The Cuban leader could have asked for and received some generous American aid. And since Cuba in 1959 possessed the most successful economy in Latin America, that aid would have put Cuba on the road to becoming the third most properous nation in the hemisphere after the U.S. and Canada. The argument that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations drove Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union is just plain specious.

In 1959, there was nothing new about a Third World head of state thumbing his nose at the United States. We were no more loved then than we are today in much of the world. The anti-American riot was a staple of the international scene from Caracas to Tokyo. Foreign leaders from Gamal Nassar to Nehru routinely denounced the United States before receiving their foreign aid from the American taxpayer. Few of them, however, felt obliged to model their respective nations on East Germany and Bulgaria and to voluntarily place their country in the role of Soviet satellite. Cuba remained the only nation in the world to join the Soviet bloc without the presence of the Red Army to enforce the matter. In early 1961 Fidel admitted to the world that he had been a lifelong Communist and that he was committed to spreading Communist revolution throughout Latin America and beyond. This came as a profound shock to many people who had seen Castro as a heroic liberator and had managed to ignore the excesses of his regime, including mass executions of former officials and soldiers from the Batista regime, outright confiscation of U.S.-owned businesses and property in Cuba and an influx of Russian advisors. Suddenly at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a military and intelligence base just 90 miles from the United States in our own backyard, a strategic victory of potentially enormous consequences. The U.S. trade embargo followed and has been in place, with minor modifications, ever since. The question is should it continue now that the Cold War has ended and Fidel is a 78-year-old anachronism facing the reality of his own mortality.

I know all the arguments for ending the embargo, and I have made a few of them myself in the past. I was wrong then and the people who call for an end to that embargo are wrong now. The reasons boils down to the nature of the Castro regime and Castro himself. It is ironic that many of the same people who clamored for a trade ambargo and disinvestment from South Africa in the 1980s, are the very same people who advocate a relaxation or removal of sanctions from Cuba. It is indeed ironic that many of these same people who cheered when General Pinochet was arrested in London, would be the same people who would invite Castro to speak at Harvard and praise him as a humantarian on the scale of Albert Schweitzer. It is ironic because the Castro regime has always been and continues to be far more oppressive than either of those governments and imprisons far more people for political crimes than Pinochet or the Pretoria government ever did. Indeed, inside Cuba today, even Apartheid is practiced openly and mandated by the state. Well, you might say, we trade with the Chinese and have a hundred billion dollar trade deficit with them. So why not with Cuba, Ray? The difference is that Communist China has changed in the last 40 years. If it was the same 1984 totalitarian state that it was in say 1966, we would not be doing business with them and there would be no reason to do so. Another difference is that in the real world it is to our economic advantage to trade with China, which has a vast growing market full of consumers who are becoming wealthier all the time. Cubans are getting less and less wealthy all the time, and the island produces nothing that we can not live without. There is no worldwide shortage of sugar, and Dominican cigars are today virtually indistinguishable from the Cuban variety. The last difference is the most important of all. It is quite simply a moral obscenity to deal with Castro as anything but an international pariah who happens to runs the world’s largest and ugliest island prison. We would not be trading with the people of Cuba, but with the warden of that prison, and that to me is unacceptable.

There is something magnetic and powerfully charismatic about Fidel that blinds even many intelligent people to his dark side. He has been successfully playing this deception for more almost 50 years and it still works. The only other world leader in modern times who has done this so well died in a Berlin bunker in 1945. Film director Steven Speilburg described his meeting with Castro as “the eight most important minutes of my life.” CNN founder and media mogul Ted Turner has spent evenings listening to Castro’s wisdom and come away basking in the glow of his presence. Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover and Charlie Wrangel, ignoring the condition of blacks in Cuba and the absence of any in Castro’s government, have embraced him and expressed solidarity with him and his regime. Doe-eyed Katie Couric has returned from Cuba praising the island as a paradise where everyone has free medical care in the numerous Castro-built hospitals. Wake up and smell the excrement, Katie. In 1959, free market and prosperous Cuba under Batista had 337 hospitals. Today it has just 264. Disease in Cuba has steadily increased since 1959 and the suicide rate has more than doubled. Film director Oliver Stone has produced a fawning documentary about Castro entitled “COMMANDANTE.” His interview with Castro, showcased in this lovefest film, consisted of ludicrous softball questions that would be laughable if posed to President Bush and even those questions were subject to removal if Castro disapproved of them. And this is the same man who directed the Nixon smear film and accuses LBJ of being part of a plot to kill Kennedy. Well, maybe I was mistaken about the intelligent part. Castro has proven that the easiest people in the world to fool are those who really want to be deceived, and he is nothing if not a master of deception. The list of those who have fallen for Castro’s image as opposed to his reality is so long that it would pointless to try to compile it. Suffice it to say that Fidel has in his time been an idol to academics, intellectuals and celebrities around the world, including a great number in this country. I expect that Castro will fool a few more of the hopelessly naive and ill-informed before he departs from this life.

What is the reality of Cuba? It fortunately remains the only nation in the Western Hemisphere to ever construct a system of concentration camps on the Soviet, Maoist and Nazi model. Sure the Argentines, Brazilians, Paraguayans and Chileans have locked up a large number of political prisoners, but they never needed a gulag of such camps for their dissidents. In most Latin American authoritarian regimes, it required active political opposition to the regime to earn a prison sentence. That is not the case it in Cuba; it merely requires what is known as counter-revolutionary activity to end up in the tropical gulag. Armando Valladares, author of AGAINST ALL HOPE, spent 22 years in Castro’s camps for writing a poem that was deemed counter-revolutionary. It is a crime punishable by long years of imprisonment to attempt to leave Cuba without the permission of the government. Yet each year thousands make the attempt, apparently not enlightened as are Katie Couric, Danny Glover and Steven Speilberg on how fortunate they are to live in Castro’s Cuba. Cuba actively persecutes homosexuals and transexuals to such a degree that it is strange that nothing is heard from the Gay community on this. Forget about Gay marriage. It is a counter-revoltionary crime to not just engage in Gay sexual activity, but to be Gay in Cuba, and Gays face official violence, segregation and systematic rape in Castro’s gulag. HIV patients are identified and isolated in special camps where they receive little ot no medical attention. These are places to die. The ultimate crime in Cuba is to be a counter-revolutionary, which means to do anything that does not conform to the life that the Party has decreed for you. Every neighborhood in Cuba has a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution to watch for counter-revolutionary behavior. Any such behavior gets you a one-way ticket to the gulag from which few return in less than ten years. This is an Orwellian state that suppresses any freedom of thought or individuality. You exist for the state and all that you will ever become or receive in your life is at t
he discretion of the state. Elian Gonzales did not return to the custody of his father; he returned to the custody of the Party and the state, which in Cuba are the only parents that count. That is something that Janet Reno apparently did not understand…… then again maybe she did and that is the sad part.

For someone who clams to be lifelong revolutionary, Fidel is one of the conservative and dogmatic heads of state on the planet. This doctrinaire Communist has not changed anything in Cuba for more than 45 years. Castro expressed his wholehearted approval when Brezhnev crushed Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring in 1968 and cheered the Beijing regime when they crushed the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He has cheered the hardliners who staged the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, mourned the fall of the Soviet Union, supported and trained terrorists from Lebanon to Uruguay, praised fellow tyrant Saddam Hussein and opposed freedom and human dignity around the world. At home, Fidel has maintained a Marxist-Leninist state with virtually no free market incentives, and the Cuban people have paid the price. While Castro and high-level members of his regime enjoy lives of splendor that Batista would have been proud of, the vast majority of the Cuban people live lives of sordid deprivation. Even the Vietnamese and North Korea have experimented with some free market ideas, but Castro remains pure in his Communism. In Cuba, even the hot dog stands and the hookers work for the government. Castro could have ended the trade embargo 30 years ago by simply making some cosmetic reforms and closing the gulag, but this tyrant knows that if he loosens the screws, his power just might unravel and that is unacceptable to this old man who has worshiped power all of his life.

Wait a minute, Ray. If we end the embargo, then American tourists will be free to travel to Cuba and that will expose Cubans to the outside world and alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people. How can you oppose the free movement of people and commerce and then talk about freedom? There is no free movement of people in Cuba, even among the tourists from Canada and Europe. The Cuban government has established a strict system of tourist apartheid. Tourists stay in hotels, eat in resaurants and lounge on pristine beaches that are forbidden to nearly all the Cuban people. They are chaperoned wherever they travel and meet no one without a party member present to monitor the conversation. It is a rare visitor to Cuba who meets anyone who is not an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution and with good reason. No sane person wants to end up in Castro’s gulag for ten years. The Cuban people see very little of the hard currency that is brought in by tourism. Most of it is used to prop up the military and secret police apparatus that are the foundations of the regime and to provide Fidel and the higher echelon members of the Party with a luxurious front to entertain celebrities and wealthy admirers from the North. An end to the U.S. trade embargo does nothing but to strengthen the Castro tyranny and maybe give it a few more years of grim life. A line of succession has already been set up to ensure that the regime survives Castro’s death, but someday, probably after the Commandante has passed away, the Cuban people will rise up and sweep their oppressors aside into the dustbin of history. When that day comes, they should know that the United States, alone among the nations of the world, did nothing to provide aid and comfort to those oppressors.

Aggie seems to think that insanity is at the bottom of the embargo:

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Apply this towards US-Cuban policy and the US seems a very nutty bunch indeed. We’ve continued to enforce a unilateral embargo against Cuba for over four decades even though it has consistently been proven ineffective. It is for this reason, and others which I will outline below, that I believe we should lift the travel and trade embargo with Cuba.

Just what is the justification for this embargo anyway? Is it for economic reasons, national security reasons, or moral and humanitarian reasons? Seems to be a little of everything at this point.

The embargo was first initiated in 1961 due to both economic and security concerns. Cuba nationalized a bunch of US land, and we didn’t like that very much. An offer of compensation was made, but was rejected. The US decided an embargo would put economic pressure on Cuba so that they’d be hurt in the same way as they were trying to hurt the US—economically. Then Cuba also became very buddy-buddy with the Soviet Union, and we certainly didn’t like that very much either. These close ties with the Soviet Union were seen as a national security threat at the time, justifiably so. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, this threat all but disappeared. When the Soviets stopped providing economic support to Cuba, we thought our embargo would actually start working and everything would change in Cuba, the regime would topple. It didn’t. So we tightened the embargo in 1992. Things did not change. So we tightened it again in 1996. Things in Cuba still have not changed. Formerly the justification for the embargo was based on Cuba’s ties with communist bloc countries, but currently the US is asking for the complete overthrow of Cuba’s government (meaning, Fidel Castro) before any negotiations can take place towards improved relations. People cite humanitarian concerns and issues surrounding civil liberties and political freedoms. There’s no doubt the current dictatorial socialist regime and Castro are bad. But forty years of US embargo have not gotten rid of Castro. Do we really think forty more years is going to do the trick? Is it perhaps time to try a different tack? Let’s see if we can actually try a new approach and accomplish what we claim to be trying to accomplish with the embargo instead of acting insane and doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Let’s see if we can actually get rid of Castro and help the Cuban people.

I’m not entirely convinced that Castro even wants us to lift the embargo. This is gold to him. He has a true enemy that he can continue to point to—the evil American imperialists who are embargoing Cuba and hurting its people even while the rest of the world helps Cuba. In this way, US policy is actually helping to strengthen Castro’s power over his people. If we opened negotiations with him, and started working towards normalized relations, we could no longer be seen as the bad guys. What would Castro scream about then? Doesn’t it seem insane that the US, while claiming to be fighting against Castro, is trying to keep in place a policy that he most likely favors?

We could bring down Castro much faster by working with Cuba, not against it. Opening such talks with Cuba would not have to mean we would withdraw our disapproval of the political, economic, and human rights policies of the Cuban government. On the contrary–we would just draw even more attention to these issues by bringing them into the discussions and using them as bargaining tools (Perhaps a bit tactless and Machiavellian, but, hey, that’s me). You want millions in American investment, you release your political prisoners. And let grassroots diplomats work their magic in conjunction with the officials. If travel restrictions are lifted and Americans are allowed to freely travel to Cuba, think of all the talk of liberty and free enterprise that will inevitably come from it. Personal exchanges of this sort can go far in advancing new policy. The more the Cuban people are exposed to other ways of living and thinking, the more they’ll want to have access to it as well.

Even the Cuban-American population is helping this along as they show the “riches” that can come from a more free society. As some of the strongest supporters of the embargo, Cuban-Americans consistently break it and send back millions of dollars to family members in Cuba. They’re not actually technically breaking the law in doing so—there are allowances in such circumstances for money to be sent back—but it seems like an awfully big double standard to me. “I got out of Cuba so I could escape Castro and come enjoy what America has to offer, but now I will fully support the embargo so that you, my family members, must continue to suffer under Castro and cannot benefit from that which America can offer. But I’ll of course lobby for a loophole so that I can send you some token cash here and there even though it is in complete contradiction to the embargo.” INSANE!! Legally one can send about $500 to family members once a quarter. Not much. But in reality much more actually gets sent, to the tune of $500-800 million per year. I’m not begrudging the Cuban-Americans the help they give their families—I’m sure I’d want to do the same. But I think this helps show what an influx of cash can do for the rest of the Cuban people. Just imagine it on a much larger scale.

Castro blames his country’s economic hardship on the US embargo. I can hardly see how this can be the case. Almost every other country in the world—including Canada, Mexico, Germany, France and even Israel–is trading with Cuba. (As a side issue, imagine the uproar if we actually tried even a little to enforce our Cuban policy on other countries: Sorry, Israel. No more aide to you until you stop trading with Cuba. Ha! That’ll never happen.) With all these other countries trading with and investing in ventures in Cuba, we cannot point to lack of trade as the reason for Cuba’s hardships. It is the lack of private enterprise more than any other factor that has played the greatest role in holding Cuba back. Even Castro himself recognizes that some private enterprises should be allowed because of the good they do. More and more Cubans are ditching their government jobs in favor of forming their own small business—selling surplus farm goods (which had been previously disallowed) or owning your own food cart or lunch stand. Yes, they’re starting small, but when such small enterprises can be shown to be an improvement over regular jobs, it says a lot. There’s definitely room for more and more private enterprise here. The trouble is, American companies are missing out on this. Currently European and Latin American companies have been moving in and setting up shop. Sure, they’re “restricted” shops while Castro’s still around, but he can’t last forever. Eventually he will die and the country will open up. If American businesses don’t get in now, we’ll miss a huge opportunity. So not only is the insane embargo hurting Cubans, it’s hurting Americans.

And what about individual Americans, like me, for example? Why should I not be allowed to travel to Cuba if I darn well please. Seems to me I have a constitutional right to travel abroad. We can travel to China, even though they’re a consistent violator of human rights. The US even gives them “most favored nation” status regarding trade issues. We can travel to Vietnam. Afghanistan. But I can’t go to a tiny Caribbean nation because the US government tells me I can’t? The 1956 Kent vs. Dulles court decision, which recognized the right to travel abroad as a liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment, said this, “An American who
has crossed the ocean is not obliged to form his opinion about a foreign policy merely from what he is told by officials of our government or by a few correspondents of the American newspapers, moreover his views on diplomatic questions are at risk by seeing how foreigners are trying to solve similar problems. In many different ways direct contact with other countries contributes to sounder policies at home.” Finally–a little sanity!

Joshua gives us some info from both sides of the fence:

Visions of Cuba
For Americans, travel to Cuba is restricted to those who apply for and attain a special license. According to President Bush: “The sanctions the United States enforces against the Castro regime are not just a policy tool, but a moral statement. It is wrong to prop up a regime that routinely stifles all the freedoms that make us human.”

Predictably, travel agents disagree with the current U.S. policy. What exist now are differing visions of Cuba, guided by pros and cons of the travel restriction. To understand the differences of opinion, I offer a selection of writings on Cuba by the U.S. government (statedept.gov), travel agencies (cuba.com and 1click2cuba.com), and travel guidebooks (lonely planet). Visions of Cuba, if you will. Visions are organized under three headings: Country description, entry requirements/travel transaction limitations, and safety/security.

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION

From the U.S. State Department

Cuba is a totalitarian, police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods, including intense physical and electronic surveillance of Cubans, are also extended to foreign travelers. Americans visiting Cuba should be aware that any encounter with a Cuban could be subject to surreptitious scrutiny by the Castro regime’s secret police, the General Directorate for State Security (DGSE). Also, any interactions with average Cubans, regardless how well-intentioned the American is, can subject that Cuban to harassment and/or detention, amongst other forms of repressive actions, by state security elements. The regime is strongly anti-American yet desperate for U.S. dollars to prop itself up.

From cuba.com

Welcome to Cuba! The Caribbean harbors a jewel in the Island of Cuba. The tropical Island extends 750 miles (roughly the size of Pennsylvania) and is a beautiful mix of mountain ranges and plains. There are over 200 bays and 289 sun drenched beaches to explore.

From Lonely Planet

Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest and least commercialised island and one of the world’s last bastions of communism. Its relative political isolation has prevented it from being overrun by tourists, and locals are sincerely friendly to those who do venture in&. The Helms-Burton Act has allowed Cuba to find its place in the post-Soviet world gradually, without the sudden destabilizing shock of mass consumer tourism from the United States.

ENTRY REQUIREMENTS/TRAVEL TRANSACTION LIMITATIONS:

From the U.S. State Department:

The Cuban Assets Control Regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department require that persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction be licensed to engage in any transaction related to travel to, from, and within Cuba. Transactions related to tourist travel are not licensable. This restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada. U.S. law enforcement authorities have increased enforcement of these regulations at U.S. airports and pre-clearance facilities in third countries. Travelers who fail to comply with Department of Treasury regulations will face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.

From Lonely Planet

It’s only a matter of time before American-imposed travel and trade barriers fall. No doubt millions will come when flights from Miami resume. Clearly, the time to go is now. Almost all visitors to Cuba arrive by air, with scheduled flights arriving from Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe. The main gateways for US travelers continue to be Cancn, Nassau and Toronto& There isn’t a bad time to visit Cuba. The hot, rainy season runs from May to October but winter (December to April) is the island’s peak tourist season, when planeloads of Canadians and Europeans arrive in pursuit of the southern sun

SAFETY AND SECURITY:

From the U.S. State Department

In the opening months of 2003, there were numerous attempts to hijack aircraft and ocean-going vessels by Cubans seeking to depart from Cuba. In several cases, these attempts involved the use of weapons by the hijackers. Cuban authorities failed in their efforts to prevent two air hijackings, largely because of weak security procedures at satellite airports. U.S. citizens, although not necessarily targets, may be caught up in any violence during an attempted hijacking. Accordingly, U.S. citizens may wish to avoid travel by public transportation within Cuba.

From Lonely Planet

Thanks to the US blockade of Cuba, very few cruise ships call into Cuban ports, and there are no scheduled passenger ships that service the country. Private yachts regularly call into Cuba’s plentiful harbors and anchorages.

From cuba.com

Cuba has no plants or animals that are lethal to humans (Yes, this includes poisonous snakes!)

From 1click2cuba.com

Is Cuba safe? Absolutely. In fact, violent crime is almost unheard of in Cuba, making Cuba by far the safest of the Caribbean islands. However, with any large city or foreign country, the obvious stands: don’t be flashy with cash or jewelry, and generally be aware of your surroundings.

And finally, Dave feels that there’s a moral choice here:

John Derbyshire, author and contributing editor of National Review said, “Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy.” Derb was most certainly referring to Cuba in this quote, once of the last remnants of Communist evil to plague the world since the end of the Cold War.

Douglas Payne describes this beleaguered country thus: “Cuba is a one-party Communist state, in which every Cuban is subject to a totalitarian system of political and social control. That system is institutionalized and given legal framework by the 1976 Constitution and the Penal Code, which together outlaw virtually any form of political or civic activity outside the purview of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). Anyone deemed by the regime to be in opposition to it is regarded as a “counterrevolutionary” and an “enemy,” and is therefore at risk of punishment. The judicial system is constitutionally subordinated to the executive and legislative branches and under the control of the PCC. That leaves Cubans with no recourse before the unlimited powers of the state, which has “zero tolerance for the growth of civil society” and systematically violates the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, privacy and due process of law.”

It is a country where the very freedoms we take for granted in the U.S. are routinely punished with imprisonment and torture. At least once a month we see television broadcasts of individuals attempting to escape this “island paradise” by taking to the sea in vessels (one can’t really call several empty 50-gallon drums attached by ropes to an old pickup truck a boat) that are as likely to sink as not, heading for Florida and freedom. They are risking their very lives and the lives of their families to find a place to live free. U.S. law states that if these refugees can reach the shore, they may stay. If they are picked up while still in the ocean, they are returned to Cuba. Honestly, I don’t know how the Coast Guard can, in all conscience, send them back after making the effort, but I’m sure there are issues at hand that I haven’t worked through.

It’s said that the 40+ year travel and trade embargo against Cuba hasn’t worked: Fidel Castro still would rather keep his people in the worst kind of bondage than give up an iota of his power. It is also said that if the U.S. were to lift the embargo, it would serve to soften Castro’s regime somehow, giving the oppressed Cuban populace a greater taste of freedom through greater exposure to our culture and mores. Our American wealth and prosperity would find its way to Cuba, feeding its hungry and providing goods and services that ordinary Cubans now lack.

I find these arguments to be unpersuasive in the extreme. First, the majority of the Western world does not have embargo relations with Cuba, so why hasn’t the rest of the world already fixed Cuba’s problems? Why is it America’s fault that the Cubans are starved by their own government? At what point does the rest of the world take responsibility for ending a great evil, instead of sitting back and making the U.S. do it? We took on the USSR. With some brave allies, we’re in the front lines on the War on Terror. Maybe it’s time that France and Germany and Canada step up, and instead of accommodating evil, fighting it. It’s not a question of the U.S. refusing to feed Cuba; it’s a question of the Cuban government refusing to let its people eat. Our embargo is not going to alter that.

The bottom line is that you simply cannot accommodate evil. The embargo is a moral gut-check for the United States, and if we blink or weaken, we lose. The only way I see for the U.S. to relax its trade and travel restrictions would be if two things happen: first, the standing Cuban government steps down and swears to never attempt to assume power again. Second, the creation of a democratic system of government where any political party with a significant number of supporters has a fair shot at power through a free election. When the Cuban people are free, we will help them. As long as Castro remains in power, our aid has no chance of reaching the people that need it, no matter how many rich Hollywood socialite/socialists say otherwise.