Cuban Embargo: Lifting it could signal a new age

After the USSR dissolved in 1989, a substantial slice of United States’ foreign policy continued to be locked in an anachronistic Cold War mentality.

The “disciplined democracy” of Fulgencio Batista, otherwise known as a dictatorship, was a boon to United States interests, legal and illegal alike. The solid gold, Golden Telephone, was presented to Batista in “expression of gratitude” for the “excessive telephone rate increase” by ITT Corporation.

As wrote, “In the 1950s, Havana served as a hedonistic playground for the world’s elite, producing huge gambling, prostitution and drug profits for American Mafiosos, corrupt law-enforcement officials and their politically elected cronies.”

Bay of Pigs invasion i 1961 changed the course of history. (Wikipedia)
Bay of Pigs invasion i 1961 changed the course of history. (Wikipedia)

After 50 years of failure, it’s time to lift the US embargo against Cuba.

Latin America was a fermenting cesspool of corrupt dictatorships. A decade prior to the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro joined an invasion force of about 1,200 troops in a failed attempt to overthrow a United States Ally, the right-wing military junta of Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Junot Diaz scorned Trujillo’s regime in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as “the world’s first culocracy…hoarding your women [from Trujillo] was tantamount to treason: offenders who didn’t cough up the muchachas could easily find themselves enjoying the invigorating charm of an eight shark bath. “Culo” in Spanish means ass, so a culocracy means a regime of the booty.

While Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution was timely, it was starkly disappointing. While Batista’s regime was an efficiently run cleptocracy of plutocrats, mobsters and the well-connected, Castro’s regime remained crooked. He added incompetency to the bitter stew as he installed Che Guevara as Governor of the Cuban Central Bank.

Although he has remained in power for five decades, Fidel Castro lost the revolution of ideals and betrayed many progressive principles he claimed to support with monkey trials, torture, summary executions and wholesale confiscation of property. Initially in 1959, he attempted to forge an alliance with the United States by meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon in an unsuccessful charm offensive.

E. Howard Hunt of Watergate notoriety, was a practiced hand in cooking up half-baked covert plans. He was instrumental in devising and implementing the Bay of Pigs invasion. Other actors included CIA Director Allen Dulles and former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, both of whom had a fetish for single handedly overthrowing governments whom they suspected of disloyalty to the United States.

They were instrumental in deposing the democratically elected governments of Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1951 and Guatemala’s President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1953. Later Hunt assisted Allen Dulles in writing the dubious book, The Craft of Intelligence, after Dulles was forced to retire from the CIA.

This U-2 1962 reconnaissance photo showed concrete evidence of missile assembly in Cuba. Shown here are missile transporters and missile-ready tents where fueling and maintenance took place. (Wikipedia)
This U-2 1962 reconnaissance photo showed concrete evidence of missile assembly in Cuba. Shown here are missile transporters and missile-ready tents where fueling and maintenance took place. (Wikipedia)

The Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 succeeded in nothing. Castro won that conflict not through competence, but because the ill-conceived plan was put together by a bunch of hubristic screwballs who only demonstrated their stunning pride, spectacular presumption, and overwhelming arrogance.

If their attempt to invade Cuba, which spans 777 miles in length, with a manned force of 1400 guerillas wasn’t inane enough, the administration of President John F. Kennedy stepped up its campaign of folly, futility, terror, sabotage and assassination against Fidel Castro with Operation Mongoose. Each of dozens of stupid plots to assassinate Fidel Castro would have been excellent material for Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, but that the CIA actually attempted these failed loony plans with strategically placed poisonous pens, detonating sea-shells and exploding cigars is pathetic.

On May 1st, 1961, less than two weeks after the Bay of Pigs, Castro declared Cuba to be a socialist nation. Instead of wooing Fidel Castro militarily and economically, the Kennedy administration further drove Castro into the Communist Soviet sphere. On February 8, 1962, seconds after President Kennedy received confirmation that he had received his order of 1200 of Cuba’s finest Cigars, he signed an executive order to embargo all trade with Cuba.

Following Castro’s appeals to Kennedy to halt continual sabotage, including a power plant, a petroleum refinery and a bridge, obviously backed by the CIA, it should have been no surprise when a U2 plane captured photographic evidence of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) in Cuba. While the ensuing thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crises is popularly viewed as a triumph of President Kennedy’s bravery by standing up to the Soviet Union, it was actually the culmination of a tragically failed Cuban policy which almost led to nuclear Armageddon.

Fidel Castro’s despotic brutality reared its ugly head early on. Even a United States citizen, William Morgan, “el gringo de Ohio” who fought alongside Castro in the Cuban Revolution and was sensationalized by New York Times reporter Herbert L. Matthews, who dubbed Morgan “the Yanqui Commandante”, suffered under Castro’s paranoia and was arrested in October of 1960 and executed on March 12, 1961, one month before the Bay of Pigs invasion, as Fidel and Raul Castro looked on.

The duality between Castro’s autocratic ruling style, and his progressive domestic agenda is a conundrum that has that makes Cuba difficult to pigeonhole. Even as the regime spearheaded multiple proxy wars in other Latin American countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, it made notable progress on health and education domestically, which inevitably led to false hopes from artists and intellects alike. Notably, Cuba has Latin America’s highest literacy rate of 99.6%, the longest life expectancy of 79.1 years, and the lowest infant morality rate of 0.54%.

But hopeful outreach usually demonstrated the pointlessness of such efforts. Alma Guillermoprieto’s, Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, from 1970, begins with sparkling vivid hope of possibility and finishes with disappointment and despair as Fidel Castro’s intelligence service looms omnipotent in the background. Her encounter with Salvadoran leftist Roque Dalton, assassinated by his comrades, portends the entire failure of Communist Cuba.

Fidel Castro’s visible style often devolved into giving mindless day-long public speeches, ranting like a mad man, mumbling like an asinine dictator. During the 1980 Presidential election, Ronald Reagan’s staunch anti-communism served to hand him 80% of the Floridian Cuban-American vote. Jorge Mas Canosa, ever the promoter and  opportunist, if not mobster the New Republic portrayed him to be, glommed onto Reagan’s electoral coattails and founded in 1981 one of the then most powerful lobbying organization in the United States, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

“Had it not been for Jorge Mas Canosa, we probably would have had normal relations with Cuba,” said Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana during the Carter administration. “He has almost single-handedly blocked all that.”

With CANF’s fervent support, fiercely anti-communist Republican Senators Jesse Helms and Dan Burton sponsored the Helms-Burton Act, in 1996, which codified the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Until Helm-Burton, the embargo had been implemented by presidential decree, but now the act penalized all companies who traded with Cuba, and punished anybody who “traffics” in confiscated property in Cuba claimed by U.S. nationals. Considering all of Cuba was taken over by the Castro regime, the net effect was to discourage all trade with Cuba. Democrats in Congress at first filibustered the Helms-Burton Act, but after the Cuban military shot down two planes operated by a private anti-Castro organization, Hermanos al Rescate.

Multiple countries opposed the act. The European Union complained to the World Trade Organization. Mexico passed a law to neutralize its effects on trade with Cuba. Anger at Helm-Burton was such that the Canadian legislature proposed the Godfrey-Milliken Bill that satirized Helms-Burton.

But it was not until Mas Canosa died in 1997 and that his long shadow began to wane. Even in the 2000 election, when Presidential candidate, Vice President Al Gore, fearful for the Cuban-American vote, bent himself in to pretzel-like political contortions to appear more hardline than the Republicans.

Elián taken by federal authorities. Really? They had to do it this way. (Wikipedia)
Elián taken by federal authorities. Really? They had to do it this way. (Wikipedia)

The tragic tale of shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez, saved by dolphins who buoyed him above water until rescue teams arrived, became a hideous saga played out in Florida and around the world. The boys’ relatives, Cuban-Americans and Al Gore’s advisors insisted on defying United States Attorney General Reno’s orders ordering the boy back to Cuba to be with his father. Political expediency turned into dogmatic pragmatism.

Hanging chads and voter suppression did less damage to Al Gore’s Presidential campaign in Florida than his seeming lack of sympathy and absence of humanity for a father who almost lost his son in the ocean and again to political brinkmanship. Cuban-American voters knew the difference.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, numerous United States politicians, including former President Richard Nixon, criticized the Helms-Burton Act on numerous grounds, notably the extraterritorial piece aimed at punishing non-U.S. corporations and non-U.S. investors who have economic interests in Cuba. Former Democratic Presidential candidate called the embargo on Cuba a “stupid policy” merely lengthened by “embittered Cuban exiles in Miami”.

In October of 2000, Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, passed by the Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, mitigated the effects of the Helms-Burton Act and allowed the relaxation and sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.

By 2001, Hurricane Michelle inspired the United States and Cuba to inncrease US food shipments to Cuba. While initial sanctions in 1962 excluded food and medicine, and negotiations to end the Cuban Missile Crises included US shipments of Gerber baby food to Cuba, the 2001 Hurricane caused a potential humanitarian crises that put politics aside. Since 2001, the US is the largest supplier of food to Cuba.

By 2009, Rep. Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota introduced the bill to bar the president from prohibiting travel to Cuba. President Obama has supported this change, and since then over 400,000 people have traveled to Cuba from the United States.

Raul Castro, left, younger brother of Cuban rebel leader Fidel, has his arm around second-in-command, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Argentine national, in their Sierra de Cristal Mountain stronghold during the Cuban revolution in this June 1958 photo. (Wikipedia)
Raul Castro, left, younger brother of Cuban rebel leader Fidel, has his arm around second-in-command, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Argentine national, in their Sierra de Cristal Mountain stronghold during the Cuban revolution in this June 1958 photo. (Wikipedia)

Now in 2014, with Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul in charge, Cuban-Americans, Florida politicians, numerous members of the United States Congress and President Obama are asking if it is time to revisit and halt sanctions with Cuba. Raul Castro has promoted economic growth and entrepreneurship in Cuba. The number of self-employed Cubans has almost quadrupled to more than 400,000 since 2009. During Mas Canosa’s reign of fear with the CANF, public sentiment to engage with Cuba was political suicide. Now, lifting sanctions means more jobs and economic growth.

Former Republican Governor and present democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist (a former hawk on sanctions against Cuba) quipped, “I mean the embargo has been there — what — 50 years now? I don’t think it worked. It is obvious to me that we need to move forward and I think get the embargo taken away. Really. I believe that.”

It’s been a long time since any sanity or honesty reigned in Cuban-American affairs. With Charlie Crist’s statements rejecting the embargo, we can light a cigar to a dawning new age. Charlie Crist may still feel isolated from the small Cuban-American community, but as Che Guevara reminisced, “A smoke in times of rest is a great companion to the solitary soldier.”