It's Not Time to Change U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
By Frank Calzon in Americas Quarterly:

Changing U.S. Policy Toward Cuba: Another View

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Florida sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul said he is ready to do business with Cuba “under the right circumstances.”  The questions are: “what are the right circumstances?" and “who benefits when American companies ‘do business’ with communist Cuba?”

The Fanjul family left Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro confiscated all of its holdings. Eventually settling in Florida, the family rebuilt their lives and fortunes, benefiting from the price supports extended to American-grown sugar by Congress, and Fanjul corporations are now international in scope.

As reported in The Post, Alfonso Fanjul’s comments and meetings with Cuban government officials were promptly condemned by Cuban-American members of Congress who didn’t hesitate to point out that the interview included no discussion of the absence of civil liberties and labor and human rights in Cuba that foreign corporations already exploit.

Foreign companies “doing business” in Cuba are best described as “minority partners” of the Cuban government.  Such companies don’t “do business” with Cuban entrepreneurs, they “do business” with the Cuban government, which obligingly “rents” those companies a compliant, uncomplaining labor force. 

Cuba’s government sets the rental price that companies pay to the government. In turn, the government pays the employees somewhat less (usually a lot less), and keeps the difference.  Complaining employees are fired —not by the company, but by the government—and replaced by someone “willing to work.”  This is how Cuban communism works and finances the repression that sustains it.

The Canadian company Sherritt International provides an example. The company operates a nickel mine at Moa in Eastern Cuba. As The Toronto Globe and Mail once reported—and recent visitors still confirm—the town has a pinkish tint, the result of unregulated emissions that can also trigger skin rashes.  Fishermen say there has been widespread damage to fish and sea life in the bay.

There are few “environmental protection” programs in Cuba, so much of the country is experiencing the same type of ecocide that Eastern Europe endured under communism and for the same reasons: Cuba’s leaders emphasize unbridled production and tolerate no independent media, labor unions or associations that might challenge government policies. People who complain are deemed to be “counter revolutionaries,” arrested, tried by judges loyal to the Communist Party, and sentenced to long prison terms.

Ah, but what about Raul Castro’s “economic reforms” so often touted by those wanting to do business with Havana?  The Washington Post had it exactly right in a recent editorial:  “Cuba’s changes are no more than window-dressing.” The editorial went on to recount the strong desire “by some in the United States to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century of stalemate” and a recent poll by the Atlantic Council underscoring that sentiment.

It also cited the prosecution and continued harassment of Antúnez, one of Cuba’s best-known democracy advocates. Born Jorge Luís Garcia Pérez, he spent 17 years in prison for describing Cuba as a “diaspora” living under the “error” of communism. Even after his release, the Castro government has continued to harass him and his family, leading The Post to conclude that “the Castro brothers do not intend to change. They should not be rewarded or fortified, not as long as Antúnez and other dissidents suffer. We share Antúnez’s vision of a Cuba that is really free—and not just airbrushed to make the regime look better.”

The Atlantic Council poll, to which that editorial referred, boldly announced that “American political opinion has shifted to support… an end to the 54 year-old trade embargo and restrictions of travel by Americans to the island.” It bragged that its pollsters “included extra sampling among Hispanics, and in the politically critical state of Florida, found that 56 percent favor … normalization of relations with a nation that U.S. policy has treated as a pariah.”

The Council concluded that Cuban Americans no longer support the embargo. That conclusion wasn’t a credible statement. Like other Americans, Cuban-Americans vote every two years and have elected seven Cuban-American members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, who—reflecting their constituencies—continue to support trade sanctions against Cuba and have publicly criticized both Mr. Fanjul and the Atlantic Council.  

In fact, Congress wrote the U.S. embargo into law.  That law specifies that Cuba must demonstrate a respect for human rights and democracy before the sanctions can be lifted.  No one seriously believes that, given Havana’s disregard for human rights and civil liberties and the bipartisan support in Congress for the embargo, that Congress is likely to change the law.

Congressional support may explain why the Atlantic Council invited only two U.S. Senators, Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont,  both well-known opponents of the embargo, to attend the official presentation of the poll. Embargo supporters—such as Robert Menendez, a Democrat from of New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Florida Republican Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—were not there. Imagine, if you can, the uproar that would have ensued if the Council had presented a poll purporting to represent opinions of African-Americans on matters of great importance to that community, without having any black members of Congress at the event. 

Regardless, the poll has attracted the political attention it sought. Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations denounces the poll as “advocacy masquerading as opinion research.” Abrams characterized it as a “push poll,” i.e. one that aims to elicit responses confirming the clear bias of the questions. For example, one question asked:  “Currently, the U.S. State Department designates four countries in the world as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. The State Department defines state sponsors of terrorism as countries that have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism, and places sanctions on these nations that restrict trade, travel, and foreign assistance. In your opinion, does Cuba pose the same threat as these other countries—Sudan, Syria, and Iran—and thus belong on the list?”  Forty percent of all Americans and 43 percent of Hispanics responded “yes,” but 52 percent of all Americans responded “no” and 50 percent of Hispanics said “no” as well.

Those polled were also asked to respond to the following: “Cuban-Americans support current U.S. policy because it puts economic pressure on the Castro regime, while providing assistance to Cuban citizens. Travel and financial restrictions have already been lifted for Cuban-Americans to help their families; meanwhile we should stay tough on the Castro regime.” Yet, 61 percent of Americans—including 67 percent of Floridians and 61 percent of Hispanics—disagreed. Why they disagreed isn't clear, but the Council characterized the response as opposition to normalization.

The Council implies a contradiction because Cuban Americans support U.S. policies that help the Cuban people but not the Castro regime. If the question: Should U.S. policy be designed to force the Castro regime to change? The answer would have been an unqualified, "Yes." Current U.S. policy toward Cuba is nuanced, reflecting this fact:  Cuba is NOT the Castro family.  It is an island of 11 million unfortunate souls living under the iron fist of a communist dictator.

Putting aside for a moment the Atlantic Council’s advocacy, current U.S. Cuba policy is determined by U.S. interests and Havana’s actions.  As recently as last year, Panamanian officials caught the Castro brothers trying to ship lethal weapons and materiel to North Korea through the Panama Canal, in violation of United Nations sanctions. The UN has now finished its investigation and is about to release a report. If Americans were told Cuba was shipping missile parts and weapons to North Korea, would they support lifting U.S. trade sanctions?

Add to the list of Cuba’s “unfriendly actions” its harboring of Colombian terrorists indicted in a U. S. federal court. The BBC reported that hit men of the late Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi living in Cuba.  A U.S. woman, charged with killing a New Jersey State Trooper and on the FBI’s “most wanted” list, also lives in Cuba under the protection of the Castro government. The FBI says she “attends government functions and her standard of living is higher than most Cubans.”

Then, there’s the USAID contractor Alan Gross.  He’s serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for delivering a laptop computer and satellite telephone to a group of Jewish men in Cuba. Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and a U.S. diplomat, went to Cuba to seek Gross’ release, but neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro would meet with him. Richardson returned calling Gross a “hostage.”

Havana maintains close ties not only with North Korea but also with Iran and the Syrian government.  Cuba frequently joins in the pejorative campaign waged against Israel at the United Nations and before other international agencies.

There is no question about the need for a continuing debate and reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy—whether on North Korea, Syria, Iran or Cuba. But wishful thinking and opinion polls don’t provide reasonable or responsible guidance for developing and implementing effective American foreign policy. Neither does the desire to pursue profit with no regard to impacts. With a clear-eyed look at the facts, a reappraisal of U.S.-Cuba policy might well move Washington to impose more stringent controls on U.S. trade with Cuba.