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Tear Down the Wall | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Tear Down the Wall

Pandering of the highest sort was on display last Friday, as President Bush announced that his Administration will "target" Americans who visit Cuba in violation of US laws. In addition to making it much more difficult to visit the country, Bush has instructed the Department of Homeland Security to step up its inspections of travelers and shipments between Cuba and the US. (This is at a time when the department can't even effectively handle security at US ports.)

Bush's policy has nothing to do with our security, or with democratic reforms in Cuba or with common sense. It is designed to win Cuban-American votes and money in the key electoral states of Florida and New Jersey; it is another piece in the "Bashcroft" assault on Americans' civil liberties. It also reveals the power that a handful of unrepresentative reactionary oligarchs in Miami have to restrict the movements of other American citizens.

As Cuba expert Peter Kornbluh told me, "I see this latest Administration act as a sign of its weakness on Cuba, its inability to do much substantive to mollify the hardline crowd in Miami which has been screaming about the fact that intercepted refugees are being repatriated and the Administration is not encouraging hijackers from Cuba, indeed is sending them back...This Administration doesn't want another Mariel boatlift, so it can't ease up on the illegal migration issue. It has little latitude to say it is toughening its stance except to cut back on travel. For domestic political reasons, of course, the White House is curtailing the one thing the US can do to help Cuba evolve--people-to-people contact."

The travel ban is just the latest example of how the decades-old embargo is a failed, hypocritical, inconsistent and self-defeating policy--demeaning to the American people, damaging to the rule of law, harmful to the interests of the Cuban polity, and beneath the dignity of a great country. Who really believes--even those like myself who protested the recent political arrests in Cuba and are concerned about the fate of dissent there--that restricting US citizens from traveling freely to Cuba (when they are free to travel to such nations as North Korea and Iran--both "axis of evil" countries) will produce democratic change in that country? What happened to encouraging the free flow of people, ideas and commerce?

If there is any good news it is that a bipartisan majority in the House understands that America needs to change course. In September, the House of Representatives countered the Administration's crackdown by passing an amendment to end the travel ban to Cuba. It also passed a less sweeping amendment that would restore permits for educational and cultural visits. (Bush has vowed a veto.)

"For more than forty years now, our Cuba policy has had the same effect as beating our head against a wall," says Representative Jeff Flake (Republican-AZ). "By tightening enforcement of the travel ban, we will essentially just be beating it harder. At some point," Flake says, "we need to concede that our current approach has failed and try something new."

Earlier this month, another voice of sanity spoke out against the US's counterproductive embargo. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, architect of policies that dramatically changed his country, and a man who knows something about reforming Communist systems, called for the US to restore exchanges and contacts with Cuba.

In an October 4 Washington Post op-ed, Gorbachev drew a parallel between the Berlin Wall and the wall of the economic embargo imposed by the US on Cuba forty-three years ago. "I urge President Bush to tear down the wall of the embargo now, in order to lay the foundation for a new relationship with Cuba." That act, Gorbachev wrote, "would complete the unfinished business of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere."

It will be a cold day in hell before this Administration changes course but it's a good issue for one of the Democratic candidates to take off and run with. Many Cuban Americans who traditionally backed punitive measures against Cuba are increasingly calling for dialogue between the two nations. The rightwing Miami Cubans who wag the dog of Florida's twenty-five electoral votes have less power, as polls show that most Cuban Americans (particularly younger ones) would like to take the first steps to heal the wounds of the past forty-three years by an increase in contact between the two nations. (And, the way this Administration's deficit is bleeding social security, Cuba may not be the big issue in Florida in 2004.)

There's also increasing bipartisan (as well as corporate) support for ending travel and commercial restrictions. Calling for a lifting of the embargo would be both politically savvy and the right thing to do.

So far, however, only Dennis Kucinich has come straight out and said he's for an immediate lifting. Dean was against the embargo, but now says it's the wrong time to lift it because we'll look like we're rewarding Castro; Lieberman is firmly pro-embargo; Edwards and Gephardt are against dropping it now; Kerry is in favor of opening up travel but not lifting the embargo; And the Clark campaign says that he needs more time to study the issue. (Neither Sharpton nor Mosely-Braun's campaigns provided information on this issue.)

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