Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- June 6, 1996
by James Fallows

Cuba: Bipartisan Bungling

Differ as they might on countless other questions, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole now agree on one point, which is the need to keep the squeeze on Cuba. Last month Mr. Dole promised that if elected he would "bring Fidel Castro down." And despite several softening gestures to Cuba last year, this year the President signed a bill that actually toughens the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba economically and diplomatically.

Of all the issues on which the two parties might present a united front, it is sad that it should be this. America's bipartisan attempt to pretend that Castro's Cuba is not there has become the least dignified aspect of our foreign policy.

Is the reason for our strategy that the Cuban regime is so uniquely loathsome? Repressive, even totalitarian, Castro's policies have been. Yet the U.S. now deals with Burma, Serbia, Liberia, Zaire, and other flawed governments. It dealt with the Soviet Union through the darkest Stalin and Brezhnev days. Castro's record is not worse than theirs.

Is the reason for our policy that Cuba is so threatening to the United States? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred when Bill Clinton was 16, maybe--but not since then.

Is it because Cuba is so threatening to the rest of the world? Twenty years ago, when Castro was sending mercenary armies far afield--maybe. Now, arms sales by, say, China are far more destabilizing.

Do we isolate Cuba because this is the best way to tip the internal balance and bring its dictator down? Hah! The U.S. pressure started under Dwight Eisenhower, and eight presidents later Fidel Castro is still there. In dealing with China, we tell ourselves that engagement with the outside world is the main hope for democracy. Whether or not that approach ever works with mighty China, it seems tailor-made for a tiny society like Cuba that could be profoundly changed by outside contact.

Is the reason for our policy that Cuba, through its defiance, has hurt American pride too much for us to forgive while Castro is there? This might ring true--until we think of Vietnam, with which the U.S. is restoring relations. If we can get over wounded pride with Vietnam, problems with Cuba are nothing.

No, none of these is the explanation. The real reason for our implacability is that one per cent of the U.S. public cares about this issue, and no one else does. That one per cent--mainly Cuban exiles and their descendants in South Florida--contains many who suffered greatly under Castro and care deeply about democracy. Their views deserve just as respectful a hearing as those of any other one per cent. But because their own Florida politicians are afraid to cross them, and few other legislators or citizens ever get involved, the one per cent has attained veto power on policy for the other 99 per cent. The veto, and the unrealistic isolation strategy, will last only until the general public notices what is being done in its name. I hope more people notice soon.

Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.