Afterimage Review

U.S. Embargo Against Cuba: It Is Time To Repeal The Helms Burton Act

President Obama greets people in Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Obama greets people in Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Scott Benowitz conducts an in-depth analysis of our resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba. We’ve yet to hear either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump state definitely whether or not they intend to continue with lifting the remaining travel and the trade restrictions, as we don’t really know where they stand on this issue. 

We’re now closer than ever to reestablishing trade and opening up travel to Cuba. President Obama had apparently been engaging in talks with the Castro administration regarding repealing the travel and trade embargoes as far back in 2014. The Obama administration had waited for several months after the talks began to announce this to the American public as well as to the rest of the world, presumably because they had no way of knowing if any progress would be made. We could soon have a relationship which would serve to benefit people on both sides.

A Brief History Of The Embargo

I was not born back in the autumn of 1960 when the Kennedy administration opted to enact our first embargo against Cuba. From what I’ve read, back then imposing the first embargo probably was the most sensible option given the events of 1959 and 1960.  It was clear that the former Soviet Union was going to be providing a lot of military aid to the Castro government, the Castro government clearly paid notably little attention to human rights, it was the Cold War era and the embargo was probably the right decision.

The terms of the initial October 1960 embargo stated that we were going to cease all exports to Cuba except for food and medical supplies.  In 1960, the Cuban government expelled some of our diplomats from Cuba, in 1961, we ended all diplomatic relations with Cuba, and in February of 1962, the Kennedy administration extended the terms of the embargo, resulting in us ceasing sending any products of any kind to Cuba.

Four Consecutive Decades Of Missed Opportunities

The original 1960 embargo was not actually intended to end all relations between the United States and Cuba permanently.  The Kennedy administration’s decision had been motivated by the human rights abuses that the Castro regime had been responsible for as well as the support that they were receiving from the former U.S.S.R.  The implication of the 1960 embargo was that if those conditions ever change, the U.S. government should be willing to recognize that Cuba produces all of the same products that every other country in the Caribbean does, and we should be able to resume trade relations with them at some point.

Yes, it is true that during the 1960’s through the early 2000’s, the Cuban government was covertly sending a plentiful supply of spies into the U.S.  They were in fact sending highly skilled spies who had been trained with a lot of assistance from the former Soviet Union (Russia after 1992), they were stealing U.S. military and U.S. government secrets, and they were selling classified information that they’d stolen from us to quite a few other countries.

The Cuban government had also been sending soldiers and weapons to a number of countries that we’d been at war with including Vietnam during the 1960’s and the early 1970’s as well as some of the Sandinista militias that we’d been fighting against in Central America during the 1980’s.  This has all been confirmed, you can learn the details of this by watching a number of shows on the History Channel, and quite a few books have been written about this by very credible historians.

What is far less understood is why they were doing this.  The Castro government used a lot of ideological statements and rhetoric about their support for the plight of communism worldwide and quotes from the writings of Che Guevara to justify their policies.  That may actually have been a euphemism.  The Castro government needed funding, and information that they were stealing form us turned out to provide them with a very lucrative source of revenue.  When the Castro government came to power back in 1959, they did so by overthrowing the Batista government, which had become barely functional; much of Cuba’s population had been living in extreme poverty, and the Batista government had been serving the interests of American organized crime.

The Castro regime had promised that conditions for Cuba’s population would improve, and they were expecting that they’d be trading with the rest of the world, which would enable them to fund infrastructure improvement projects, their healthcare system, their schools, their buses, their roads and their airports.  When we ended all aid to them and all aid to them, they simply had to look to other sources for revenue.

It is entirely possible that if we’d begun to gradually attempt to resume trade with them during the détente era beginning in the 1970’s, the Cuban government would have had a lot of reason to cease their espionage activities, with the hopes that by demonstrating that they had no further desire to send spies into the U.S., we’d resume trade with them.  And just as the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations missed these opportunities back in the 1970’s, the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations missed these opportunities during the 1980’s and the early years of the 1990’s.

The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the subsequent 1996 Cuban Liberty And Democratic Solidarity Act, which is often referred to as The Helms Burton Act of 1996 (named for former Representative Dan Burton and the late Jesse Helms) further strengthened the terms of the embargos which began in the 1960’s.  The terms of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the subsequent 1996 Cuban Liberty And Democratic Solidarity Act reinforce the statements that we cannot resume any diplomatic relations with Cuba, we cannot conduct any business with them and we cannot allow any travel between our 2 countries while either of the Castro brothers are in power.

The first easing of relations began in 2000 when former President Bill Clinton enacted the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act.  This act stated that we could send medical aid to Cuba.

Beginning in 2009, U.S. citizens who have family members in Cuba have been permitted to obtain travel visas so that they can visit their family members, though they had to travel either to Canada or to Mexico first.  There have also been exceptions made for various arts groups, sports teams as well as for news reporters, although until this year, all of these groups had to travel first to Mexico or to Canada.  Until this year, we’d not flown any direct passenger flights to Cuba since 1960.

In 2005, the Cuban government offered to send doctors, nurses and medical supplies to Louisiana and Mississippi to offer assistance to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, though former President Bush (II) refused to consider accepting any aid from Cuba.

In 2015, we reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, and in May of last year, the State Department officially removed Cuba from our list of states which sponsor terrorism.  In this past May, President Obama met with Cuban President Raoul Castro in Havana, making this the first time that an American President met with a Cuban President since Calvin Coolidge met with Gerardo Machado y Morales in 1928.

In President Obama’s 2015 and 2016 annual State Of The Union addresses, he’d stated that he hopes to see the embargo lifted.

There is no doubt that the human rights record of the Cuban government during the years that Fidel Castro had been in power was absolutely abysmal.  It will likely be many years before the full extent of the abuses and the atrocities that they’d committed are known; let it suffice to say that from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, many thousands of people who had expressed opposition to the regime disappeared and they have yet to be found anywhere.  Furthermore, many criminals who were fleeing from this country knew that they could find sanctuary in Cuba- if they could make it to Cuba, they knew that the Cuban government would harbor them from investigation or deportation.

However, we conduct unrestricted trade with quite a few countries who have unbelievably poor human rights records.  In an ideal utopian world, we could state that we won’t conduct any trade with countries whose governments are known to engage in human rights abuses; in reality, all of the shelves on all of the stores in the U.S. would be empty very quickly if we were to try to actually pursue such a policy.

2016: The Embargo Is Now Accomplishing Precisely The Opposite Of What It Had Been Intended To

The reality is that our embargo has ended up punishing the Cuban people, not the Cuban government.  We are the only country in the world whose government has imposed a full trade embargo against Cuba, so products which were manufactured in almost every other country in the world do enter into their markets every day of the year.  Despite all of their slogans and mottos that they’ve borrowed from the writings of Karl Marx and Che Guevara, Cuban government officials live in very luxurious homes with expensive furniture that would not look out of place in any of the wealthiest neighborhoods in any cities or suburbs in the U.S., Canada or Europe.  And most of the island lives in poverty.

They do have a very advanced healthcare system, they have statistically lengthy life spans, but they are in fact living in poverty.  Their military is well supplied with former Soviet era equipment, as are their hospitals.  The embargo has actually now ended up accomplishing precisely the opposite of what it was originally intended to accomplish.  An embargo which effectively perpetuates the conditions of poverty that most of the population of the island nation is still living in benefits neither the U.S. nor Cuba, nor anyone else.

While we’re closer than ever to reopening full relations with Cuba, we’ve still got a lot of work ahead.  Travel restrictions have been eased, but we’re still not officially permitted to travel as tourists yet. Earlier this year, we resumed regular postal deliveries to Cuba, and mail from Cuba now reaches the U.S.

Current regulations state that Americans can now travel to Cuba, for “family visits, official U.S. government business, business for foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations, journalistic activity, professional research and professional meetings, educational activities, religious activities, public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions, support for the Cuban people, humanitarian projects, activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes, exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials, and certain authorized export transactions.”

At the end of August of this year, direct airline service from the U.S. to Cuba resumed.  If we are legally traveling for one of the aforementioned purposes, we no longer need to travel first to either Canada or to Mexico.  In April of this year, cruise ships from Miami were finally permitted to travel to Cuba for the first time since the 1959.

President Obama now only has 2 months left in his second term in office, so if we’ve not lifted the trade embargo and removed the rest of the terms of the travel restrictions by January of 2017, the decision to do so will be in the hands of either the Clinton/ Kaine or the Trump/ Pence administration.

The November 8th, 2016 Elections, The Current Candidates, Your Vote And Resuming Trade With Cuba

I do sincerely wish that I could tell you where the current candidates stand on this issue so that when you go to the polls next Tues. November 8th, 2016, you’d know how your vote may affect our resuming trade with Cuba.  But I can’t.  We’ve yet to hear either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump state definitely whether or not they intend to continue with lifting the remaining travel restrictions and the trade restrictions, so we don’t really know where they stand on this issue.  The question was not asked during the debates, so our best indicators will be their actions from previous years.

As our former Secretary Of State, Hillary Clinton is quite obviously very familiar with the human rights record of the Castro government.  The Obama administration did not begin to issue statements indicating that they were seriously considering normalizing our relations with Cuba until December of 2014.  It is entirely possible that the issue was discussed among his cabinet staff very seriously during his first term in office, but if they were discussing resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba between 2009 and 2012, none of those discussions were made public. Therefore, Hillary Clinton may in fact have extensive experience researching the issues relating to resuming trade with Cuba, but we’ve yet to hear any specific details from her.

Executives from The Trump Organization did travel to Cuba in the 1990’s, so it is possible that he is interested in resuming trade with Cuba.  In interviews which have appeared on CBS News and CNN, Donald Trump has actually seemingly issued contradictory statements, he has actually stated that he has been both in favor of as well as opposed to resuming trade with Cuba.  The candidates from the Green Party as well as the socialist and left wing third parties this year do advocate for resuming full relations with Cuba, including opening all trade and travel.

As I was researching this article, I was unable to find statements from the conservative and right wing third parties regarding their views on resuming our trade relations with Cuba and lifting the last pieces of the travel embargo.

Repealing The Trade Embargo Would Be Mutually Beneficial

If the trade embargo is lifted, we would likely be importing sugar, tobacco, rum and tropical fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, guavas, papayas, passion fruits, pineapples, coconuts, avocadoes and bananas from Cuba. Lifting the trade embargo would likely stabilize the price of sugar, tobacco and tropical fruits and vegetables for upcoming future years here.

Repealing the last of the travel restrictions would benefit the tourism industry- both for the Cubans as well as for the U.S.  It’s no secret that quite a few Americans have enjoyed traveling to the Caribbean for vacations since the 19th century, and Cuba is in fact the largest island in the Caribbean.

We’d be exporting just about everything that we can into the Cuban markets.

With regard to technology and scientific research, it is well known that Cuban doctors are among the best in the entire world, and we would be sharing medical research with them.

For hobbyists and auto enthusiasts, we’d probably be bringing some of our automobiles from the 1950’s (and earlier) back into the U.S., while concurrently selling some of our vintage autos to Cuban collectors.

The Cold War era “spy vs. spy” games are seemingly over. It’s no secret that we do still spy on the Russians, and they’re no doubt spying on us, but all evidence that has been made available to the public so far illustrates that the Cold War era tactics of sending spies through Cuba ended when Raúl Castro succeeded Fidel Castro, if not slightly earlier.

It is no secret that back in the 1970’s, the CIA had repeatedly attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro, probably more times than our government had tried to assassinate anyone else in the entirety of American history.  We quite obviously did not succeed- their security was far tighter than we’d anticipated.  Again, the “spy vs. spy” games are over, we’re not attempting to overthrow or assassinate any Caribbean leaders anymore.

Okay, Full Trade And Travel Resumed, Beginning Effective Immediately

It’s not quite as simple as that.  Since 1959, the Cuban government has been very clear that they want us to close the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.  The Guantanamo Bay base encompasses 45 square miles, and the Cuban government would love to be able to build towns and farms on that property.

The Cuban government has stated that the continued presence of the base violates international law.  It is very clear that no almost no American politicians have any interest in closing the base.  Most of our politicians feel that the base is strategically located, we’re using it house a prison complex which houses some of the organizers of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, and we have no interest in relocating them to the U.S. mainland.  Resuming diplomatic and trade relations between two countries is in fact a two-way street.  Our next President will have to be willing to consider engaging in a series of discussions with Raúl Castro and his advisors, and whomever our next President will be, he or she knows that they will have to consider this issue too.

 

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  • author’s note/ postscript: I want to clarify here- In 1996 as well as in 2008, Hillary Clinton had stated that she was very clearly in favor of maintaining the embargo with Cuba. In 2014 as well as in 2015, she did state that she now favors repealing the embargo. So far this year, in 2016 she has been notably silent on the issue entirely. Politicians are in fact people, they do in fact have their right to change their minds on issues- that shows that they are willing to adapt their perspectives as the world around us continues to change. I’m guessing that the reason that Hillary Clinton has said so little about Cuba this year because she either because considers this to be an issue of lower priority within her agenda OR it is very possible that she’s waiting to see further developments in the progress of the current negotiations between the Obama administration and the Raúl Castro administration before she makes any further decisions about the embargo.

About the author

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Scott lives in Rye, N.Y. photo credit: Liza Margulies

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