A COLLEAGUE WHO normally is a close reader of the newspapers stopped me to say, "I see that President Clinton has lifted the economic embargo against Cuba." Not quite, I responded, not even remotely quite. The president's action hardly scratched the surface of the 35-year-old embargo, which has been rightly termed by the Economist a "cynical farce which unnecessarily hurts 11 million people." What the president did was to suspend, for an indefinite period, a provision in the Helms-Burton Act designed to discourage foreign investment in Cuba; otherwise, all the provisions that block U.S. investments, trade and travel with Cuba remain in effect.
Clinton opposed Helms-Burton at first because its harsh provisions were certain to anger U.S. trading partners, already resentful of the embargo. But he signed it in the middle of his re-election campaign in March 1996 after two small planes piloted by Cuban-Americans were shot down over Cuban air space. Senator Jesse Helms (R., N.C.) and Representative Dan Burton (R., Ind.), who sponsored the bill, say that its intent is to further strengthen the economic embargo and thereby "bring democracy" to Cuba, by which they mean overthrow Fidel Castro and end communist control of the island.
The act is but the latest attempt by the U.S. to oust Castro, who has led Cuba during the administrations of eight U.S. presidents, one of whom, John F. Kennedy, may have tried to have Castro assassinated, and who gave reluctant approval to a disastrous attempt by Cuban-Americans to invade the island at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the removal of communism as a world threat, anti-Castro forces in the U.S. Congress lost their major motivation for opposing Castro. But by this time, opposition to the Cuban dictator was so embedded in U.S. foreign policy that political leaders were reluctant to change, even though the potential economic benefits of having a trading partner 90 miles off the coast of Florida should provide sufficient reason to remove the embargo. The policy has hurt the Cuban people economically and, ironically, has strengthened Castro's control by providing him with a convenient way to stir nationalist sentiment against the U.S. Why then, has the embargo continued?
The answer lies not in foreign policy but in domestic politics. The future of Cuba is of particular concern to Cuban-Americans, many of whom dream of returning to the island from which they or their parents fled years ago. When the cold war ended, the weight of shaping political opinion on Cuha fell into the hands of organizations like the Cuban-American National Foundation--whose leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, is believed to be the choice of many Cuban-Americans to succeed Castro--and the politicians they influence. …