Comments from The Outpost

22 November 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

A couple stories in the news this week remind us once again of the stupid, failed, and yet continuing US policy toward Cuba. It's one of those double-think exercises of which governments and politicians seem supremely capable -- watching a policy fail year after year for thirty five years, and then asserting that we just need MORE of it.

At the moment, the US is seriously out of step with even the more conservative of our western allies as a result of the reactionary, arrogant, and probably illegal Helms-Burton law. This law was passed by congress and signed by the President this year in the frenzy following Cuba's shooting down of a couple of small civilian airplanes in or near its airspace.

That act was indefensible, but no more so than the posturing and grandstanding that followed here. It was enough that Bill Clinton caved on his previous opposition to Helms-Burton and signaled that he would sign it, thus assisting its hasty passage through the house and senate. The irony here is heavy. Clinton did exactly what his detractors, especially those on the right, constantly accuse him of doing -- acting with virtually no consistency of principle or purpose, but only from the prevailing political winds. Had he not been so quick to bend with this particular wind, he would have done to Helms-Burton exactly what Fidel's fighter jocks did to those two Cessnas.

Anyhow, we now have Helms-Burton as the law of the land, although Clinton did postpone some of its provisions until after the election. Perhaps he'll surprise me and find some way to torpedo it completely, but I'm not holding my breath. The arrogance of that law is enormous! It says that, we, the all-knowing, paternal protector of right and goodness in the world, have decided that Cuba is bad and that anyone from ANY country who does business with it may be arrested, tried, convicted, and punished by us. Never mind if your government holds a more charitable view of Cuba; never mind if your dealings with the country are entirely in accord with INTERNATIONAL law; if you do what WE don't like, we'll punish you if we can, that is, when you are in the US or trying to do business here.

Our European trading partners have been saying since the outset that Helms-Burton is an illegal and unacceptable interference with their sovereign right to conduct trade, but so far that issue hasn't come to a head. Now, the we have to deal with the fact that the Pope, himself a long-time opponent of Communism, has agreed to visit Cuba -- himself, in person -- next year. So what would Jesse Helms have us do now? Seize the Pope's assets in the US? Excommunicate the Pope? Regrettably, all that will probably happen is that we continue to look like some retrograde backwater fiefdom as we fume and stew about all this and continue to threaten severe knuckle raps to countries large and small that defy our pronouncements.

The Pope, of course, WILL be able to visit Cuba without any significant repercussions to his person. The same cannot be said for ordinary citizens in this country who make such a visit. In the other story in the news this week, we find that the US government, in the person of the Treasury department, is harassing a local college professor who last March led a group of students to Cuba. The form of this harassment is quite telling. Treasury has sent a strongly worded letter, threatening 6-figure fines and worse, if the professor does not "HAND OVER THE NAMES" of those who made the trip with him.

My mind flashes on a scene from an old B-grade world-war 2 movie, as the Gestapo interrogator says to the prisoner: "you vill hand over ze names! Ve have vays of making you talk!" Except that this is USA 1996, and it's not supposed to work like Nazi Germany, 1942. It's also no laughing matter. The government has actual travel applications from all those who made the trip, so the demand of names makes no sense except as an exercise in harassment and intimidation.

The very fact that travel licenses are required by the US government for travel to Cuba is an improper and unacceptable limitation on the liberties of US citizens, just as it was in the '60s when people like William Worthy first chose to defy the ban. It's all part of this failed policy based on the anti-communist fanaticism of the 1950s and which is alive and well today in the person of Jesse Helms.

It was this fanaticism which demanded that the US reject Castro when his revolution turned out to have Marxist leaning, and this rejection which was seized on by the Soviets to create an ally in our backyard. The Cuban missile crises of 1962 may have kept missiles out of Cuba, but it didn't get Soviet influence out of Cuba, and so the stalemate continued. The sixties and the seventies rolled by, still the US trade sanctions did nothing to displace Fidel Castro; they only served to cement his relationship with the Soviets and to diminish the lives of individual Cubans.

At any time during this period, the US could have shifted its policy and moved toward reconciliation with Cuba. It would have had real benefits in reducing the Soviet influence in this hemisphere and creating trade opportunities, but NO! The political correctness of opposing Castro had become so entrenched that even people who should have known better made no move to discard the old, counterproductive policies.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss of its financial support to Cuba, our policy didn't change. Here again is a serious and disappointing example of the inability of the Clinton administration to act courageously and on principle in the face of opposition from certain constituencies. The embargo and isolation of Cuba made no sense before; without the cold war, it made even less. And now with Helms-Burton, we mandate by law doing even more of the wrong thing than we were doing before.

It's time for this 36-year-old cold war with Castro to end, and it's time for the US to concede defeat. Castro has ruled Cuba for over 36 years, a long time for any country in the history of the world. Even if he were to die tomorrow, he has outlasted 8 US presidents.

Castro and his government aren't exactly my cup of tea, but I'm not a Cuban citizen, so what I like doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot in Cuba. The same should be true of US foreign policy. We have this infuriating habit of trying to torture the peoples of other countries, through embargoes and sanctions, into casting off leaders that we don't like. It's a practice that's both morally wrong and doesn't work. Sanctions and embargoes only succeed at one thing, and that is creating suffering and misery among the innocent masses of the country while doing nothing to affect those actually in power.

We've done this in many places, but nowhere for so long a time as in Cuba. A change in policy is long overdue. The Pope has the right idea. An offer of cooperation has a chance of making things better. Helms-Burton precludes any such chance. It bespeaks a petty, spiteful, belligerent, counterproductive, and impotent attitude -- in short, the personification of its author, Jesse Helms. And it helps our foreign policy like motor oil helps a bottle of wine.

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.