WHEN THEY LOOKED at the Filipino dictatorship, America's foreign policy elites said, "Marcos must go."
When they looked at the Chilean dictatorship, they said, "Pinochet must go."
When they looked at the Haitian dictatorship, they said, "Cedras must go."
Of Zaire they said, "Mobutu must go." Of South Africa they said, "Apartheid must go." Of Burma they say, "SLORC (as the dictatorship is called) must go." Of East Timor, "The Indonesian occupiers must go."
But of Cuba, which bleeds under one of the bitterest and most implacable tyrannies on the planet, they say: The US embargo must go.
Here, for instance, is Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, in a speech at Harvard last month:
"There is no moral justification for the current embargo. In terms of effectiveness as an agent of change, it has proven to be a complete failure."
Few of the nation's leading newspapers, big-business groups, or liberal activists would give the cardinal an argument. Few in the Clinton State Department (if they were speaking off the record) would either. On March 20, the president eased some restrictions on dealings with Cuba; it is an open secret that he would go much further if he thought he could get away with it.
The embargo-lifters argue that barring trade and other dealings with Cuba accomplishes no good and much ill -- that it punishes innocent Cubans by denying them needed food and medicine, that it isolates the United States diplomatically, that it gives Fidel Castro a handy scapegoat for his country's troubles. Some even insist that ending the embargo is the quickest way to end Castro's reign. "There would be no surer way to undermine the Castro regime," wrote The Economist in a January editorial, "than to flood his streets with American tourists, academics, and businessmen, with their notions of liberty and enterprise."
Is any of this true?
When a cardinal attacks anything as having "no moral justification," he is firing his biggest rhetorical gun. But Law is shooting blanks.
President Kennedy imposed the embargo in February 1962, after Castro had seized billions of dollars' worth of American assets. Castro had already made Cuba a satrapy of the Soviet Union; the missiles would shortly be discovered. At La Cabana, on Isla de Pinos, and elsewhere, Castro's firing squads were at work, breaking and butchering young men by the hundreds for opposing his new Communist tyranny. Surely Law would agree that refusing to do business with a thief who murders and who is prepared to help destroy you is morally justifiable.
After 1962, Castro continued to murder, continued to steal, and continued to aid Moscow in extending the Evil Empire. He continued to throw honest men and women into dungeons for speaking their minds, continued to harass churchgoers, continued to force ordinary Cubans into a grinding and demoralizing poverty, continued to fill his island with lies. Every president since Kennedy has extended the embargo; Clinton signed it into law after Castro murdered four Americans by shooting down their planes over international waters. "No moral justification"?
Arguments against the embargo are more rhetorical than real. An inability to trade with the United States, for example, can hardly be causing Cuba's shortage of food and medical supplies. Castro is free to buy and sell from every other nation on earth. Cubans lack necessities because their economy is a wreck and their dictator would rather see them starve than permit market reforms. When he bellows, "Socialismo o muerte!" he means it.
True, the embargo puts America at odds with Canada and the Europeans. That is to their disgrace. Anti-American strutting is always a crowd-pleaser, especially in Canada, which is Cuba's largest trading partner ($400 million annually). Our business-as-usual allies ought to get over themselves. The money their tourists and investors are pouring into Cuba is doing nothing to hasten Castro's end. To the contrary: He milks them for the very cash that sustains his grip on power.
Foreign companies operating on Fidel's island, notes Representative Bill McCollum, chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Crime, "deal with the Cuba government, not with private businesses. They do not hire workers directly, but pay Castro a substantial sum for each worker -- sometimes as much as $5,000. Castro, in turn, hands the workers a pittance in worthless pesos." It is as close to slave labor as you can get in the Western Hemisphere. US firms should be proud not to be a part of it.
As for the hypothesis that flooding Cuba with Americans and dollars would so riddle the place with capitalism that Castro's junta would collapse, think again. Foreigners already arrive by the hundreds of thousands annually -- many of them Americans who simply travel via a third country. But their effect on Cuban society is minimal, since Cubans are banned from the tourists' hotels, restaurants, and beaches.
The key to Cuba's salvation does not lie in constantly attacking US policy. It lies in washing away the corrupt and fetid stain of Fidelismo. The embargo is regrettable and has its costs, but it is not what keeps Cubans on their knees. The dictator is. Instead of harping on the embargo, American leaders should be saying, loudly and insistently, what every Cuban yearns to hear:
"Castro must go."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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