Staying the Course: Bringing Change to Cuba through Continued Pressure

By Burton, Dan | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Staying the Course: Bringing Change to Cuba through Continued Pressure


Burton, Dan, Harvard International Review


DAN BURTON (R-IN) chairs the Government Reform and Oversight Committee and is a ranking member of the International Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives. He is co-author of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened the US embargo of Cuba.

For the last four decades, when talking about Cuba, there was little dissension in US foreign policy circles. Fidel Castro was a communist dictator who brutalized his people, seized American property, offered his island as a barracks to the United States' Cold War adversary, and fomented revolt throughout the hemisphere. That relative unity in US-Cuba policy eroded with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow's US$6 billion annual subsidy to Havana disappeared. In a move to win Western aid and investment, Castro renounced Cuban military intervention. US corporations grew anxious to tap into the Cuban market and calls to end the embargo grew louder, both within the United States and around the world. We must not heed these emotional calls, not now. This is the moment when we must maintain our resolve and end Castro's reign in Cuba.

Castro and His Subjects

Castro has trampled the human rights of his subjects. He has sent political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals, used electro-shock therapy and psychotropic drugs as punishment, and starved the Cuban people through rationing and a system of medical apartheid. In his book Against All Hope, Armando Valladares writes vividly of his 22 years in Castro's prisons for political dissidents. Rats chewed away portions of his fingertips, and sores covered his body. Urine and feces were dumped on him through the wiremesh ceiling of his cell and dried in his hair. He was subjected to daily torture and degradation because he believed in God, a belief deemed threatening to Castro's revolution.

Moreover, Fidel Castro's immoral economic system amounts to a kind of apartheid. While Cubans wait in ration lines for food and medicine at state run stores, foreign tourists and the Cuban elite can purchase any product they want at so-called "dollar stores." The average Cuban earns the equivalent of US$5-10 per month; since most goods are only in stock at dollar stores, the Cuban people are left out of Castro's "free economy." This is a failure of Castro's system, not of US policy.

The fact is the United States cannot hurt the Cuban people any more than Fidel Castro already has. Even without an embargo, the Cuban people would suffer and Castro, who is a billionaire according to Forbes magazine, would thrive. Under the embargo, the people do suffer, but Castro also feels the pinch of lost revenue and subsidies and may come to recognize the negative consequences of his behavior. Amid these realities, Helms-Burton was born.

Isolation versus Engagement

Starved for cash with the end of Soviet subsidies, Castro is attempting to sell off vast tracts of nationalized land formerly owned by US businesses and Cuban Americans. Fortunately, the United States has not caved in to Canadian or European pressure to put profits ahead of principles by helping to support the Castro regime. Instead, we have taken the high road. US policy in no way intends to harm the already shackled people of Cuba. Contrary to press reports and public opinion, there is no embargo on Cuban-bound food and medicine. In fact, since 1992, the United States has authorized more humanitarian assistance to Cuba than the rest of the world combined (over US$2.4 billion). The United States authorizes this assistance in such a way that Castro is not further enriched.

Several years ago, a bitter debate raged over the best approach to combat apartheid in South Africa. Many in the United States, including prominent Republicans, favored the imposition of sanctions against the South African government. Indeed, in 1986, the United States imposed the strongest sanctions on South Africa of any nation in the West. …

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