Barack Obama is Wrong. The Embargo Needs to Stay.

UPDATE: After reading Henry’s comments below – I have changed my mind. I am keeping the rest of this post, though, so my readers can see my thought processes.

Okay, I won’t say this very often — and I know the folks at Babalu won’t like this — but I agree with Barack Obama. At least on the Cuban embargo. The Miami Herald has a quick run down of some of the candidates’ positions on Cuba, including Obama:

In an opinion column in The Miami Herald, Sen. Barack Obama assailed President Bush’s policy — which restricts Cuban Americans to visiting relatives once every three years and sending only $100 per month — as “strategic blundering when it comes to advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba.”

Rival Sen. Hillary Clinton said she would continue the Bush administration’s hard-line stance, for the most part. Clinton’s campaign said she agrees that exiles should be able to freely send money to their relatives but said she does not favor ”any wholesale, broad changes” to the travel restrictions until Fidel Castro falls.

The other major Democratic candidate, John Edwards, said in a statement Tuesday that promoting travel by family members to Cuba ”can help spread the promise of freedom and democracy within Cuba and strengthen families across the waters.” He favors the cap on remittances to use as leverage against the regime.

”Rudy Giuliani believes America must stand ready to help the Cuban people reclaim their freedom, but decreasing sanctions on Cuba will only serve to boost the Castro regime,” said a campaign statement.

Romney’s campaign said: “Unilateral concessions to a dictatorial regime are counterproductive, helping to secure a succession of power and repression instead of a transition to freedom.”

And yet, all of these candidates don’t seem to understand the reality of the situation. They don’t understand the way to end the Castro regime is not to play a game of wait and see, but to exert force upon him.

In the 1980’s the United States and it’s European allies did not trade with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. President Reagan called it the “Evil Empire.” For more than 40 years, the US stood opposed to everything Soviet.

Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought us glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. These two concepts, opening government and restructuring the economy were the main reasons for the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, it could not have happened on its own.

The west took advantage of Gorbachev. They pushed information and started pushing western goods into the Soviet Union. In 1990, the first McDonald’s opened. Coca Cola was first sold in Moscow in 1988. The first Pizza Hut opened in 1989. The Barrie Newsletter wrote in December 1989:

There is about to be an explosion of visible Western commercial activity in the Soviet Union. Within the next six months, the largest MacDonald’s Restaurant will open, along with Pizza Hut, Marriott and other hotels. There is growing number of Western advertising, public relations, legal and accounting firms here. A new Soviet law allows professionals and blue-collar workers alike to take jobs abroad and earn hard currency there.

For these and similar reasons I find it impossible to imagine that the “free fall” into capitalism can be avoided. I like to think that Gorbachev is trying to slow the opening shock of change by forcing it to be gradual, but I’m not sure how successful that can be. The rapidity of change is so great that it will soon overrun all attempts to control it.

I see huge economic possibilities here.

The new decade will be the prologue to a new century of possibilities, and I believe all of the collected experiences of my life have brought me here for that purpose.

Fast forward to 2007.

Only now we’re not talking about an internal push to save a dying economy. Instead, we have the death of the head of a cult of personality. His iron will, his tryanny over his people, have helped in stay in power. To be sure, he has been able to trade with everyone BUT the United States for some time. It has a trade deficit with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and more.

It was imposed in by Executive Order in 1962 because Cuba seized the property of US citizens and corporations. In 1992, it was codified into law by Congress, to bring democracy to the people of Florida. Yet Castro is still in power.

So, the embargo has been nothing but an abject failure.

End it. Now.

First, allowing Cuban Americans the right to travel freely back to Cuba, to send money home, will have the effect of glastnost. Cubans will be opened to new ideas. They will learn from their families that the United States is not the country depicted by the Castro regime. They will understand that if America is a good country, Castro must be feeding them more lies. The simple act of allowing thousands of Cubans to have more connections with their family will start the process of fomenting unrest. Castro can’t jail everyone.

Second, American companies can finally move into the country. This can mean jobs for Cubans, as well as being the nose of the camel for other American interests. McDonalds, Starbucks, WalMart, Mariott, Hard Rock, General Motors, AT&T, DirectTV, and many more companies would love to open in Cuba… and there’s no way Castro could keep them all out.

Yes, I know. Fidel Castro is a corrupt thief. Yes, ending the embargo will put more money into his hands – and I agree that is a bad thing. It is why so many are saying we should wait until he passes away. That will be the moment to step up.

Of course, there is an old saying – be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Raul could turn out to be worse… or maybe there is a new player able to rise up and become the next evil dictator.

No amount of wishing and hoping and thinking and praying and planning and dreaming each night will cause the right circumstances to occur.

We must act. The sooner the better. Or Santayana will be right.

About Jim Johnson

Editor and publisher of The State of Sunshine.
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8 Responses to Barack Obama is Wrong. The Embargo Needs to Stay.

  1. Pingback: Obamability :: Barack Obama is Right. End the Embargo. Now.

  2. Vince says:

    Don’t agree, Jim. First of all, we should drop the term “embargo”, when our policy really doesn’t constitute an authentic embargo. There are restrictions on capital flows and trade, but it is not an outright embargo- food and medicinal supplies are traded to Cuba. By changing our existing policy to the Obama prescription, you are only going to funnel more $$$ to the Castro regime, with absolutely no guarantee that political/human rights reforms will accompany this cash infusion, which will only wind up sustaining this corrupt government. Raul Castro is cut from the same cloth as his brother- he is not going to bring about Gorbachev-like reforms.

    You have to ask yourself- what percentage of those remittances sent by Americans will Castro confiscate? Probably a lot larger % than you are willing to admit to. If history serves as any guide, we should know by now that whatever changes we have made in our Cuba policy to “engage” the Castroites, they have always turned these changes against us, and given us additional problems- in this case we would be sustaining the very entity that we want to end. There is no goodwill emanating from the those who constitute the Cuban government- until there is such, there is no reason to suspect that by merely allowing remittances to flow, that will change the nature and character of the regime along with its police state apparatus.

    We cannot assume that by merely injecting capital into the country will bring about substantive reforms, political or human rights related. China seems to have perfected a sustainable Communist vision- it has allowed for a certain amount of economic freedom, but it continues keep political and human rights reforms off the table. Is that what we want for Cuba? An unelected and fundamentally lawless dictatorship rules Cuba, and the successors to Castro will be intent on keeping it that way, regardless of whether Americans can visit regularly or send more money to family members. Obama is pandering on this issue, and most Cubans down in Miami can smell this a mile away.

  3. This reads like a Thomas Friedman op-ed. He likes bragging about how McDonald’s is the gateway to freedom.

    Perestroika was a failure. The Soviet/Russian government is too corrupt to properly reform. That still is true today. Russia’s economy was saved because of oil.

    Letting Cuban-Americans visit home is a good idea. Many of the relatives are visiting anti-Castro Cubans. The United States should not isolate these people.

    I look forward to your world is flat post.

  4. Henry Gomez says:

    It’s not about whether we like what you wrote about the embargo, it’s that what you wrote is wrong.

    Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought us glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. These two concepts, opening government and restructuring the economy were the main reasons for the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, it could not have happened on its own.

    The fundamental difference is that no Gorbachev has come along in Cuba. It’s the same old guy still running the show (and his equally old brother).

    In order for trade to have a democratizing effect there have to be sweeping economic reforms in Cuba. Reforms the old guys haven’t implemented precisely because they understand that those will be a catalyst to political change. That’s why fidel advised Gorbachev against glastnost and perestroika. fidel ultimately was proved right. Gorbachev is seen by the west as a reformer who brought an end to oppressive Soviet system. To castro he’s a fool who lost power. And remember to the castros power is the thing.

    I could also nit pick some of the other stuff you wrote but I think this suffices.

  5. Jim Johnson says:


    You are completely 100% correct that there have been no internal reforms. But I’m not sure I follow you when you say that trade can not have democratizing effects in the absence of reforms.

    You could, of course, point to China. It has established a strange hybrid of a market economy within a communist government – almost free trade without democratizing effects.

    However, the effects of the market economy in China are spread over a billion people — and would have a greater effect on the people of Cuba.

    I will not pretend to be an expert on Cuba nor an economist. To me, it seems reasonable to say the embargo has failed; thus, the U.S. should attempt to find new ways to exert economic pressures. Trade with Cuba could not do any worse than the embargo has.

  6. Henry Gomez says:

    OK, now you’ve lured me into the full-scale debate. Hope you have a few minutes to read through this.

    Let’s start with China. As you mentioned China has a market economy. By definition then it is no longer communist. I think it’s something closer to a fascist state.

    But the reason we trade with China is because we believe that commerce can have a democratizing effect. While to date it hasn’t yielded the results you and I may like it to have, there is no doubt that many Chinese people are better off today than they were before China opened its economy up.

    When an American corporation does business in China he is doing business with a private citizen or corporation that employs people at wages set by the market. There’s a reason that the price of oil is going up so quick, increased demand. And a lot of that demand is coming from China where cars are being sold to the new middle class like they are going out of style.

    In Cuba, foreign companies can only do business with state-owned enterprises. And they must do business under Cuba’s rules which prevent the type of societal gains mentioned above. For example the Spanish hotel company Sol Melia manages a bunch of hotels in Cuba. They are minority partners with the government as the majority partner (the Cuban law dictates this).

    The employees that work in those hotels are paid by the Cuban government at the rate the government dictates (currently a maximum of about $20). Meanwhile the Cuban government receives payment for the labor of those employees from the foreign investor at a negotiated rate which is much higher. In essence these employees are indentured servants paying a 95% income tax for their labor.

    The last big difference between Cuba and China is that China agreed to a settlement for properties it expropriated from American interests (About $200 Million) when it went communist. Until this happened in the late 70s the U.S. did not really open up economically to China. Cuba, which confiscated far more ($1.4 Billion — more than $8 Billion in 2008 dollars) has never even acknowledged the existence of the claims.

    Which brings be to the next point: the goal of the embargo. The embargo is a punitive measure which was put in place as a response to the aforementioned expropriations. Until Cuba agrees, even if just symbolically, that those expropriations were illegal and wrong, I can’t see how the United States can trade freely with Cuba. What would prevent the regime from suckering a bunch of American investors into Cuba only to repeat the actions of the past? And what message would it send to other governments? That the US is willing to forgive the theft of the property of its citizens if you are belligerent enough for long enough?

    You said:

    However, the effects of the market economy in China are spread over a billion people — and would have a greater effect on the people of Cuba.

    That’s correct. All I’m saying is that Cuba doesn’t have a market economy and American tourism and investment will make it no more of a market economy than Canadian, British and French tourism have to date. The only people that can make Cuba into a market economy are the people that (mis)govern Cuba. They need to legalize private property, legalize the private sector in the economy, allow workers to negotiate their wages and to organize independent unions. They need to allow foreign companies to operate independently of the government rather than in joint ventures with it. Then I would be much more amenable to dropping the embargo. Those democratizing effects might have a chance to sprout wings. Under the current system, it is impossible. Pleases see this cartoon:

    You say the embargo hasn’t worked but that’s according to your definition of “working”. Certainly it hasn’t worked to remove Castro. But as I mentioned it was put in place as a punitive measure not an instrument of regime change and it certainly has punished the regime. That’s why they howl about it all the time. We know that Castro funded insurgent movements throughout Latin America when he had Soviet financial backing. Today the embargo keeps him from having additional cash that he would surely use in similar ways.

    Lastly you engage in a fallacy of logic called a false dichotomy. Since the embargo hasn’t “worked” then lowering the embargo must work. That’s wrong. It’s quite possible that while the embargo hasn’t removed castro, that removing it could actually help reinforce the regime’s stranglehold based on the way they have economic system rigged. In fact i’d say its likely.

    At this point with Castro on his deathbed and the serious economic problems Cuba is having, it doesn’t make sense to remove the one lever we have. When that Gorbachev fellow surfaces in Cuba we want to be able to offer him the carrot of removing the embargo in exchange for some basic concessions like the economic reforms I mentioned and the release of the political prisoners. That’s a carrot that castro has refused to take because of his obsession with absolute power.

    Removing the embargo doesn’t put any pressure on the Cuban government, in fact it’s the opposite. The short term surge in tourist dollars and American capital will loosen the noose slightly until the novelty of travel to the once forbidden country wears off and the backward economy results in loan defaults.

    The prospect that the embargo could lowered if a non-castro implements reforms is real pressure that raul castro will feel once fidel is in the ground. It could cause internal division at the top levels of the regime where expectations for change are high and a situation where that Gorbachev figure might be able to step forward, move raul out of the way and do what needs to be done for Cuban progress, not what needs to be done to maintain absolute power.

  7. Jim Johnson says:

    Henry, You make some very good points and have educated me (and hopefully my readers).

    This paragraph has convinced me to change my mind:
    “At this point with Castro on his deathbed and the serious economic problems Cuba is having, it doesn’t make sense to remove the one lever we have. When that Gorbachev fellow surfaces in Cuba we want to be able to offer him the carrot of removing the embargo in exchange for some basic concessions like the economic reforms I mentioned and the release of the political prisoners. That’s a carrot that castro has refused to take because of his obsession with absolute power.”

    I agree now. The embargo should remain.

  8. henry Gomez says:

    Thank you, sir.

    My degree is is in economics and I used to think the way you did when you wrote this post. Then I realized that as much as I’d like to flood Cuba with blue jeans and McDonalds we only control the sending end of the hose. The receiving end is controlled by the same murdering communists that took over 49 years ago. And they haven’t changed their thinking. So they’ll take that hose and only allow what they want to get through. It’s very shrewd on their part. And it’s tantalizing to think about the great effects trade would have in Cuba but its not realistic until the Cuban government relinquishes control of the receiving end of that hose to the Cuban people.

    The reason I changed my mind was probably the same reason you changed yours. When I thought that way, Cuba wasn’t really at the top of my agenda and consequently I didn’t really look at the situation closely. You know as well as I do that it’s a lot easier to be swayed by slogans and demagoguery when you don’t know the issue intimately. Then the Elian thing happened and I began to take a closer interest in Cuba. I realized that the issueof the embargo is being demagogued to death.

    In addition to the points I stated above, there’s one other big reason I’m for the embargo. If you look at the two sides of the embargo debate, both sides have honest people that want Cuba to be free. They just see different ways of achieving it. However there’s one side which also contains mouthpieces for the regime. A lot of them are academics who as students were members of Cuba friendship societies. Some are people that have owned businesses that sell travel to Cuba and expound on how evil the exile community is on local radio, etc. etc. And you can guess which side they are on.

    Now if I were a small “d” democrat and I saw a guy advocating the same policy I’m advocating except that I know the guy is an agent of influence of the castro regime, I’m going to have second thoughts about my position.

    And one clarification. To be fair to Obama, he has not said he’s against the embargo. Only against the “family travel” restrictions that are currently in place. I don’t agree with him on that either but it should be noted. That said I don’t think he’d have the political will to veto a big spending bill because it contained provisions that weaken sanctions on Cuba. The very real threat of such a veto by president Bush is what has kept the embargo in place this long in the face of an ever increasing chorus by editorial boards around the country that are against the embargo.

    So thanks again sir for reading my ramblings. I’ll be sure to bookmark your blog.

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