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Cui bono? The embargo as ideology for rip offs


OPINION: “U.S. law forbids Americans to travel to Cuba for pleasure. That law is on the books and it must be enforced. We allow travel for limited reasons, including visit to a family, to bring humanitarian aid, or to conduct research. Those exceptions are too often used as cover for illegal business travel and tourism, or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba. We’re cracking down on this deception.”

— G. W. Bush, October 10, 2003

FACT: Administrative regulations don’t prohibit Americans from traveling, but from spending money in Cuba, unless licensed to do so for research, media reporting, or family visits.

“Freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society, setting us apart…it often makes all other rights meaningful.”

— Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, (concurring) Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500, 520 (1964)

For more than four decades, I’ve read false, stupid and downright zany reports about the U.S. embargo and travel ban on Cuba. On October 10, when President Bush announced his new and tougher measures against Fidel Castro’s regime in order to “hasten the arrival of a new, free, democratic Cuba,” I almost laughed.

These steps are “only the beginning,” Bush said, “of a more robust effort to break through to the Cuban people.” Had he forgotten the last forty-four years and ten months of other presidents’ robust efforts? Enough, I said. It’s time to offer my own observations on the subject.

The objective of the pro-embargo advocates has no relation to foreign or domestic policy or fostering change in Cuba. Rather, a small group of rich and extreme right wing Cubans – some who have clear connections to terrorism – use anti-Castroism to control U.S. policy and thereby increase their own power and fortunes.

Since President Reagan effectively privatized U.S. Cuba policy in 1981 and handed it to his supporters in the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the embargo has become a lynchpin of their domestic clout.

They discovered that by contributing to strategically placed members’ campaign coffers, several Miami Cuban organizations and its affiliates could direct the voting behavior of members of both Houses – and both Parties. The Castro-hating millionaires who run these organizations have elevated the embargo and travel ban to the realm of the sacred. They repeat their “not one cent for the dictator” dogma despite the contradictions between their words and their own behavior.

Some of these pious hardliners acknowledge sending money regularly to their relatives in Cuba. Indeed, thanks to the generosity of the Castro-hating exiles, remittances have become Cuba’s highest source of foreign exchange. But here, the embargo-travel ban ideology enters the world of the mysterious. Castro somehow would use money from investors and unlicensed tourists – as distinguished from U.S. Treasury licensed travelers – for Evil purposes, but money sent as remittances to relatives on the island is Good money, used for humanitarian purposes.

“We do not want to enrich the tyrannical government of Fidel Castro,” lectured National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to the media on October 13. She said the ban would stop Castro from using “these monies to fund his tyranny, his crackdown on dissidents.”

Yet, Rice supports the continuation of the policy of Cubans in the United States sending remittances – money, which, just like that spent by unlicensed tourists, ends up in Cuba’s Central Bank. Castro then decides how to spend it.

Picking up his cue from La Rice, Richard Newcomb, Director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which monitors the embargo and travel ban, testified the next day before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Human Rights and Wellness. Tourist travel, he lectured, may seem harmless, but is an “important source of revenue for the Castro regime. A dollar paid to a tourist hotel in Cuba goes mostly to the regime, leaving only pennies in worthless pesos for the workers.” (Does the approximately one billion dollars spent by non-U.S. tourists in Cuba go for Good or Evil?)

How ironic that so much moral language emerged over an embargo dying a natural death under President Carter! By the late 1970s, U.S. travel to Cuba had increased and businessmen had begun to explore investment possibilities.

Then, the CANF hardliners resurrected it and made anti-embargo and travel ban rhetoric the base of their political dogma. But Cuban sources reveal that some of the loudest anti-Castro ranters have secretly invested in small-time capitalism on the island. Fifty thousand dollars to a brother-in-law in Havana buys an eight burner stove, fancy glasses and dishes and a paint job and plumbing – all that’s needed to convert a old rickety house into an attractive private restaurant (paladar). Similar arrangements lead to the emergence of car, bike and computer repair shops and services for tourist enterprises. Lifting the embargo would invite unwelcome competition for these cockroach capitalists.

Change in U.S- Cuba policy might also cost Miami exile organizations their pet enterprises. Some Miami Cuban bigwigs exercise personnel and content control over Radio and TV Marti, the illegal U.S.-government transmissions into Cuba (Castro jams the TV Marti signal).

Despite the hold exercised by the embargo lobby, the logic of the post Cold War world should demand that Washington change its failed embargo policy. In the October 4 Washington Post, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev advised Bush that “the only way to get out of this time warp is to replace the current policy with a policy of constructive engagement similar to the one being pursued toward other so-called Communist countries.”

Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake complained that “at some point, we need to concede that our current approach has failed and try something new.”

Reasonable and logical appeals miss the political point. Change in Cuba would weaken CANF’s controls of the policy from which it derives political strength.

The embargo has unquestionably hurt Cuba, which claims that over forty-one years, the policy has caused $72 billion of damage to the island’s economy. Ardent embargoites blame Castro for the suffering, but Washington’s policy players care little about Castro the human rights violator. They still want to punish Castro the disobedient. Recall how President Nixon, 1970-3, ordered the CIA to help overthrow Salvador Allende’s government in Chile because of his noncompliant politics, not because he violated human rights.

Castro, however, had dodged the punitive bullet for decades (including CIA assassins’ bullets). After 1990, as the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba no longer received assistance, its economy went so far south that the day of reckoning seemed near – for the near sighted.

“Experts” like The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer foresaw “Castro’s Final Hour,” to quote his 1992 book title. Former National Security Staffer on Cuba Jose Sorzano adored the embargo and travel ban. “The beast [Cuba] is wounded,” he announced with a grin, “It’s time to go in for the kill.”

Smelling blood, CANF heavies leaned on President Bush (41) to increase pressure. In 1992, Congressman Robert Torricelli – a major recipient of CANF leaders’ largesse – authored a bill to tighten the embargo by penalizing nations like Canada that traded with the island. Torricelli’s act refused foreign ships that entered Cuban ports the right to dock at U.S. ports for six months. The 1996 Helms Burton bill further restricted trade with Cuba. Nevertheless, Cuba’s economy rebounded.

Now, George W. Bush, the tenth U.S. president to face Fidel Castro since Eisenhower, declares he will finish the job. Realists dismiss Bush’s dubious Cuba pledge, recalling his education oath (“Not a child left behind,”) and his promise to get Osama bin Laden (“We’ll smoke ‘em out,”).

An October 15 Newsday editorial typifies media response to Bush’s “new” measures. The writer yawns over “this kind of rhetoric on Cuba from a sitting president – particularly a Republican one.” Bush is simply “revving up his re-election campaign machine with an eye toward the … influential Cuban- American voting bloc… which despises any candidate… soft on Castro. Florida, of course, gave Bush the electoral votes he needed to become president.”

The editorial assumed that Republican strategists need to “start placating the anti-Castro crowd, which has been grumbling lately that Bush has paid too much attention to creating democracy in the Middle East and hasn’t done enough to foster democratic change in Cuba.”

Do these attention-starved Castro-phobes want democratic change in Cuba? Such a claim belies their political nature. They, like Bush, have not read or simply disregard the U.N. Charter’s admonition to blatantly interfering in the internal affairs of another country. Cuban exile leaders have bankrolled terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, who took credit for bombing a Cuban commercial jet and killing its 73 passengers and crew over Barbados in 1976 and in fomenting bombing plots at tourist sites in Cuba in the 1990s.

Some of those named as backers of this kind of terrorism in Cuba by the New York Times applauded Bush’s “new” measure. They feel they have even succeeded in convincing the Administration heavies, who appear oblivious to law, to mobilize the newly formed anti-terrorist apparatus to harass travelers to Cuba. On October 14, Condoleezza Rice said the President had directed “Homeland Security to …really begin to enforce these travel restrictions.”

So, instead of fighting the war on terrorism “Customs and Border Protection inspectors have stepped up their efforts by examining nearly all of the charter flights departing from Miami,” OFAC boss Newcomb reports.

The embargo and travel ban do hurt Cuba, and they also deprive U.S. citizens of money Congress could otherwise invest in Medicare and other needed benefits. That Bush claims such dubious measures as means to further democracy compounds his political transgression and insults a diverse exile community.

Landau teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH’S KINGDOM, will be published in September by Pluto Press. His essays in Spanish appear on www.rprogreso.com

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