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The US leadership should take a more forward-thinking approach to Cuba

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 2 December 2003


The United States should end its sanctions against Cuba. This year’s United Nations General Assembly - as in previous years - will probably adopt a resolution critical of American policy and calling for the US to end the sanctions. Hardly any country supports the US policy.

The sanctions were imposed when Castro came to power in 1959. They are the longest-running failure in US foreign policy. First, Castro is still in office - and he has survived nine US presidents, with Bush as his tenth opponent. He is one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state. The sanctions have not led to his overthrow by pro-US Cubans.

Second, the sanctions have elevated Castro from being the leader of a minor country to being seen as a great “threat” to US national security. No Cuban government propaganda could ever have achieved for Castro’s international image what the US has done for four decades. The only reason why Cuba is a foreign news story comes from the US sanctions. In foreign-policy terms there is little to otherwise attract interest to Cuba.

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Indeed, the US has no threat from Cuba at all. There is certainly political instability in Latin America. But this is derived from the economic turmoils within each country (such as Brazil) and the failure of their own economic strategies. No country has a communist group urging their citizens to follow the Cuban example. Cuba represents a quixotic era long past for most Latin Americans. The US’s fixation with Castro and Cuba is not shared by the other countries in the Americas.

Third, the sanctions are also counterproductive in domestic Cuban terms. They have not toppled Castro. The experience from Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines and Indonesia is that as a country develops, so the emerging middle class want a say in how the country is governed. Sanctions keep Cubans poor and prevent the rise of a politically active middle class. Sanctions also give Castro an excuse to clamp down on political dissidents because he says that he is defending the country against US aggression.

Cubans may have a political loyalty to Havana but their hearts are in Hollywood. If people are given a choice, they shrug off communism and vote for consumerism. We have seen this in Eastern Europe a decade ago and it will eventually happen in China. Therefore the US ought to be encouraging free trade with Cuba.

Finally, the US’s sanctions enjoy little international support. The annual debates at the United Nations General Assembly always result in a non-binding resolution calling on the US to end the sanctions. Only a handful of countries support the US’s policy - Australia does not support the US’s policy. Similarly, US business interests also do not support Washington. They can see financial advantages in opening up Cuba to international trade.

Why, then, does the US maintain sanctions? The explanation is now purely domestic. There may have been some Cold War explanations in the past but the Cold War is over and so they no longer apply.

Instead, there is an active anti-Castro community in the US, particularly in Florida, drawn from the Cubans who fled Castro’s takeover. Florida – as Al Gore will tell you - is an important state for gaining votes. This is not least because Florida is part of the flourishing “sunbelt” (as distinct from the declining “rustbelt” of the old manufacturing states in the north). Bush also has a family interest: his brother is governor and he needs all the electoral help he can get now that rich liberal Democrats are retiring from the north and coming to live in Florida. But foreign policy should not be held hostage to such narrow political considerations.

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Here are two recommendations. First, the US should end the sanctions. This could be done slowly. Bush could offer a few concessions and see if Castro will accept an olive branch. If there is some reciprocal gesture from Castro then that can in turn be built upon. It may not require much more work from the White House itself; it could be left to US businesspeople to open up the next stage of the dialogue.

Second, the current President Bush should learn from the error of his father in the White House. Bush senior had no contingency plans to cope with the collapse of the USSR. The US was caught by surprise by the end of the Cold War and was unable to help Russia’s transition to democracy and a market economy. The US spent 45 years worrying about the strength of Moscow and has spent the last 11 years worrying about it weaknesses. President Castro will not last forever. The US should be getting ready for the post-Castro Cuba.

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Article edited by Nick Biddle.
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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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