“Did you hear? Clinton is beginning to lift the embargo. It’s on the news,” a fellow traveler to Cuba exclaimed in Havana’s José Martí International Airport. The President’s January 5 announcement of “additional steps to reach out to the Cuban people”–expanded remittances and flights, a few licenses for the sale of food and agricultural goods and permission for a binational baseball game–has been wildly misconstrued. Diehard-liners are accusing the White House of accommodating Castro, but Clinton remains far closer to their retrograde position than to a realistic policy toward the forty-year-old Cuban Revolution.
To be sure, Clinton’s is a unilateral initiative–abandoning the policy of “calibrated response” to changes in Cuba. And it marks the first opening under the rigid trade embargo for corporations like Archer Daniels Midland to sell grain, pesticides and fertilizer to select Cubans, if Castro’s government agrees.
Overall, however, the Administration has squandered a pivotal opportunity to break with the implacable hostility of the past. On the President’s desk were a Republican-backed proposal to establish a National Bipartisan Commission on Cuba to re-evaluate the cold war relic that is Cuba policy, as well as a new set of creative recommendations by a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Cuba. On the altar of electoral politics, the President has sacrificed both.
In taking the low road, Clinton chose to ignore the considerable political space for changing course that has opened up over the past year. The Pope’s visit to Havana a year ago, during which he urged Washington to “change, change, change” its hostile posture, provided high-profile moral cover for the United States to fundamentally rethink its position. The Pentagon’s unequivocal conclusion in May that Cuba “does not pose a significant military threat to the United States or to other countries in the region” eliminated the national security argument for the embargo. The emergence of Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, a business group led by well-known titans of commerce and finance, brought a potentially formidable lobby to the debate over Cuba.
Finally, this past fall Senator John Warner delivered key Republican support to the White House for a long-overdue bipartisan reassessment of Cuba policy. “More and more Americans are becoming concerned about the far-reaching effects of our policy on US interests and the Cuban people,” Warner and twenty-three other Republican senators wrote the President in October. Their proposal for a commission carried the endorsement of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Lawrence Eagleburger, among other conservative luminaries.
The report of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force demonstrates the potential for significant new ideas on Cuba. While the commission would examine the lifting of the thirty-eight-year embargo, the task force–a diverse group of conservative and liberal strategists as well as members of Jesse Helms’s staff–came up with a set of moderate, novel, realpolitik recommendations that could be enacted under the onerous Helms-Burton legislation, which codifies the embargo. Among them: lifting the blockade on US private-sector investment in Cuba in the areas of travel services, newsgathering, activities related to distribution of humanitarian assistance and in cultural work like art, movies and music; allowing for the sale of food and medicine; providing tax cuts for Cuban-Americans who send remittances to family on the island; and establishing cooperation between the Pentagon and the Cuban armed forces “to reduce tensions, promote mutual confidence-building measures and to lay the basis for the improvement of relations” in the future.
A moderately courageous White House would have adopted those substantive steps. Instead Clinton bowed to the anti-Castro lobby to make only meager policy changes that, he announced, “would provide the people of Cuba with hope in their struggle” against Castro. He also agreed, under pressure from Vice President Al Gore and Florida Senator Bob Graham, to abandon the commission. Right-wing Cubans in Miami began referring to the Warner proposal as “the Gore Commission,” serving notice on the Vice President that they would make it a domestic political issue. And Graham reportedly warned Clinton that the commission would be “a disaster” for Gore’s hopes of taking Florida in 2000.
In the end, Clinton rejected a golden opportunity to engage in a national dialogue about Cuba, not to mention an international dialogue with the Cuban government. Cuba’s leadership has dismissed the initiative as “a deceptive maneuver” designed to deflect mounting criticism of the US embargo. “Someday they will have to abandon it,” said Cuban official Ricardo Alarcon, “in front of the growing opposition of the world.”
He may be right. “This is a thin crowd,” a US official characterized advocates of re-evaluating Washington’s ossified posture on Havana. In fact, it’s a broad and growing coalition that includes the 143 countries that voted at the United Nations to condemn the embargo, the Vatican, longshoremen in Louisiana, rice producers in Iowa, corporations like Radisson and Ingersoll-Rand, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the US Catholic Conference, the UAW, the US Chamber of Commerce, and Pastors for Peace and the Rainbow Coalition, among other interest groups.
Increasingly, the “thin crowd” is in the White House.