The Magazine

After Fidel

With Castro fading fast, it's time to rethink U.S. policy toward the Cuban regime and give hope to a beleaguered people.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By MARIO LOYOLA
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Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, who fled the Cuban Revolution at the age of six in 1960, is the Bush administration's point man on Cuba policy. He is often asked whether the U.S. embargo is working. "My answer is an emphatic yes," he recently explained. "The embargo has denied Castro resources." Maybe so. But it has also supplied the Castro regime with two things it vitally needs: isolation and a foreign enemy who is not a real threat.

For decades the United States has maintained a policy of complete ostracism of Cuba--no travel, no trade, no remittances, no diplomatic relations. This has not cut the Castro regime off from resources: Cuba receives as much aid from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as Israel gets from the United States. The policy has accomplished little except to protect the Castro regime from the outside influences that proved fatal to communism in Europe. And it is increasingly poisonous to the interests of the United States.

President Bush gave a clue to why this policy survives in his 2007 State of the Union speech when he said, "We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma." Miami representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave the president a beaming thumbs-up, not stopping to think that what defines these three countries as a group is not the repressiveness of their governments (he could then have mentioned China or Saudi Arabia) but rather their strategic irrelevance.

Few Americans are old enough to remember that Cuba was once modern and vibrant, a powerhouse of cultural influence. Modernity was the reason for the revolution. Castro's initial base of support was among the urban middle class--university students, professionals, and small-business owners who wanted democracy. What they got was a cataclysm.

WASHINGTON REACTS TO CASTRO

The current U.S. policy towards Cuba was born in the elections of 1960. Castro had been in power nearly two years. Reports of kangaroo courts and summary executions carried live on television horrified the American public, while Castro's fratricidal consolidation of power--along with sweeping seizures of foreign-owned property and military support from the Soviet Union--awoke Washington to a near menace.

In October, John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, accused the Eisenhower administration (and by implication his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon) of permitting the creation of "Communism's first Caribbean base" and allowing Castro to arm himself to the teeth with Soviet weapons. Nixon convinced Eisenhower to react sharply, and, on October 19, the president imposed an embargo on all trade with Cuba. With an indifference that would become characteristic of Washington's attitude, the secretary of commerce, Frederick Henry Mueller, remarked, "If it pushes them into trade with the Communist bloc, that's just too bad." In January, Washington broke off diplomatic relations.

In the months that followed, Castro dramatically increased the seizure of private property and criminalized the free press. When the archbishop of Santiago publicly protested, Castro turned on the church and confiscated all property held by religious organizations. For my grandfather, a pharmacist in the eastern seaside town of Manzanillo who had delivered medicines to Castro's guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains, this was the final straw. Along with hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, he and his family fled to the United States. Betrayed by their former hero, these Cubans would hate Castro with an enduring passion. They would remain implacably opposed to any relaxation of the U.S. embargo.

After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed in 1961, Castro slammed the door shut on the exodus. The transformation of Cuba into a prison was now complete, with two sets of walls--one erected by Castro to keep everyone in and the other erected by Washington to keep everyone and everything out. Cuba's people began their lonely journey into the endless calamities of Castro's dictatorship.

WHAT CASTRO WROUGHT

Cuba would now be shaped by Castro's personal--and often sadistic--caprices. When the guerilla leader Huber Matos, the comandante of Camagüey province, attacked the drift towards communism in 1959, Castro sent Matos's best friend to arrest him. (Convicted of treason, Matos spent 20 years in jail.) Castro had no patience for dissent and was always willing to contradict the consensus of his advisers, just to show them that he was in charge. That same summer, a revolutionary tribunal in Santiago acquitted 57 air force officers of the former regime. Castro traveled to the province and personally reversed the verdict, arguing that technicalities could not get in the way of the "revolutionary conscience." The officers were executed en masse by machine gun.