Breaking the Ice: The Need to Improve US-Cuban Relations

By Bagchi, Aditi | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Ice: The Need to Improve US-Cuban Relations


Bagchi, Aditi, Harvard International Review


WHEN THE CUBAN AIR DEFENSE SHOT down two civilian planes earlier this year, killing four Cuban-Americans, the United States swerved away from the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. The details of the incident are unclear; little is known besides the fact that the planes and their pilots belonged to a Cuban-American group known as Brothers to the Rescue, an organization that sends planes to help Cuban refugees who wish to enter the United States. The details of the incident are less important than its immediate consequences. Cuba's downing of these planes has prompted the US government to impose new economic sanctions on Cuba, and the bitter enmity between Washington and Havana has been rekindled.

This turn of events is unfortunate, for it seems that US President Clinton will follow the lead of the Republican congress and return to the unsuccessful policy of confrontation and isolation that marked the first three decades of Washington's relationship with Fidel Castro's regime. However, Clinton ought to continue the process of normalization with Cuba, even in the face of hostile acts such as the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes. The domestic political costs to President Clinton of improving US-Cuban relations are overstated, and such a process of normalization is the most prudent course for US foreign policy.

In the past, US relations with Cuba have been motivated too much by domestic politics, especially by Cuban-American special interest groups. Former US President Jimmy Carter improved relations with Cuba somewhat, but this improvement was limited by the fear of an anti-Castro backlash in the United States. Although Carter did have some successes--most notably the establishment of cooperation between the US and Cuban coast guards, and the release of political prisoners--his policy failures had dramatic consequences. The Carter Administration did not define the terms of migration from Cuba to the United States, and as a result Castro orchestrated the Mariel boatlift of 1980 which dumped 125,000 Cubans, including 2,700 criminals and mental patients on US shores. Ultimately, Carter's overly-minimal dealings with Cuba did great harm to the United States. This, in turn, caused a massive setback in US-Cuban relations.

When he was elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan vowed non-negotiation with Castro, as was required by his party. However, Reagan was too conscious of Cuba's importance to uphold his pledge of non-negotiation, and he opened discussions despite his vow. As a result of these negotiations, Castro took back many of the dangerous migrants of the Mariel boatlift and released 3,000 political prisoners. He established immigration laws, suspended them, and then resumed them again in 1987. Thus it is clear that, while Castro has not made moves towards democracy, he has been consistently responsive to the United States, sporadic political overtures.

In past several decades, the Soviet Union was the main obstacle to establishing relations between Washington and Havana. Now that the ally-or-enemy paradigm of the Cold War is outdated, so is US policy towards Cuba. While the United States and Cuba still have serious differences on issues like human rights and immigration, the Cold War policy of isolation and non-recognition is not appropriate for dealing with these kinds of issues.

In forging its new foreign policy on Cuba, the United States cannot rely upon the policies advocated by particular special interest groups or cling to the foreign policy ideology of the Cold War. A more effective US foreign policy toward Cuba must take into account the interests of the US public and the international community at large. Such a policy must include steps towards normalizing relations with Cuba.

Outdated Rationales

The arguments advanced for continuing the policy of non-recognition and isolation simply do not stand up to scrutiny. The first argument frequently made against normalizing US-Cuban relations is that the United States should not associate with a dictatorship and a communist regime, but rather, as US Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff stated, "deny it legitimacy through international and direct pressures. …

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