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.
I opposed those sanctions at the time because I believed that they would inflict damage on South Africa's black population. I thought that the best way to end apartheid was to empower the black majority economically, which could then overwhelm the apartheid system and make it obsolete. If I knew then what I know now, I would have supported targeted sanctions aimed at eliminating an evil and oppressive system. Sanctions underscored our resolve and solidarity. They played a key role in forcing South Africa's white leaders to loosen their stranglehold on the political system and to negotiate a democratic future for their country. I was wrong in the 1980s, and opponents of Helms-Burton are wrong today.
Unprincipled economic engagement has succeeded in changing few, if any, repressive regimes. Economic freedom does not presuppose political freedom. If anything, political freedom leads to economic freedom. Engagement did not tip the scales in the Cold War. Resolve, determination, and sanctions helped hasten the collapse of the Soviet state. Though it has enriched a handful of corporations, engagement has not brought about democratic reform in either China or Vietnam. It will not do so in Cuba.
Instituted to pressure the Castro regime into abandoning its dictatorial posture, the US embargo was designed to force the Cuban leadership to pay a high price for its continued abuse of the Cuban people. Castro has been able to stay in power because the embargo was not strong enough and was balanced by massive Soviet subsidies. The collapse of the USSR triggered a 60 percent contraction of the Cuban economy, revealing the utter bankruptcy of Castro's policies. In addition, passage of both the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (Torricelli Act) and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1995 (Helms-Burton) have further tightened US Cuba policy. These factors, as well as the complete weariness and disgust of the Cuban people with Castro, indicate that time is running out on the dictatorship in Cuba.
Today and Tomorrow
However, President Bill Clinton seems bent on liberalizing the US relationship with Cuba. He allowed media outlets to open offices in Cuba and balked at supporting Helms-Burton for months. To appease the delegate-rich state of Florida during the Presidential campaign of 1995-96, he finally signed the Helms-Burton Act after Castro's air force shot down two US-flagged civilian airplanes in early 1996, killing their pilots and passengers. Clinton has since refused to enforce key components of the legislation. Systematic suspension of Title III, which allows US citizens to pursue property claims in US courts, and inadequate attention to Title IV, which punishes foreigners by denying them and their families visas to the US if they engage in trafficking of illegally confiscated American property, have diluted the effectiveness of the law.
For domestic consumption, the President uses his signature on Helms-Burton as evidence of his resolve and determination. Abroad, however, he uses his half-measures to appease European and Canadian governments. This fact is further reflected in his recent decision to lift restrictions both on direct flights between Miami and Havana and cash remittances to Cuba, which flies in the face of both the spirit and intent of Helms-Burton. This begs the question: does the President represent the American people or European and Canadian interests?
Without question, the average Cuban faces difficult economic conditions. Some are starving. Some are going without medicine. But Fidel Castro, not the United States, is the source of this suffering through his determination not to join the family of nations and through his continued repression of the Cuban people. The Cuban people, so full of hope in Santiago de Cuba in 1959, would tell us themselves if they could. But almost 40 years later, they stand at the same place in Cuba and the same place in history. We look across the Florida Straits at a Cuba frozen in 1959.
Castro's revolution only replaced one tyranny with another. There is no freedom in Cuba. There is no dignity of man in Cuba. Far from saving Cuba, Castro's statist experiment has condemned the nation to nearly a half-century of poverty. Far from liberating it, Castro's regime made Cuba dependent on Moscow. And far from bringing peace, Castro's revolution ensured perpetual misery.
Despite all the waste and loss of the last four decades, tomorrow can be better for Cuba. We saw that in the hopeful faces of the Cuban people during the Pope's visit, but tomorrow will not arrive until Castro departs.