Why didn’t the embargo oust the Castros from power?

Putting an end to the Cuban dictatorship carried certain risks and lacked political cost-effectiveness.

12 Aug Why didn’t the embargo oust the Castros from power?

Why didn’t the embargo overthrow the Castros?

Invitado al coloquios del periódico el Dia: el escritor y periodista cubano,Carlos Alberto Montaner/foto José de León

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

To sanction or not to sanction? That’s the dilemma. The embargo on Cuba, declared by John F. Kennedy in 1962, is usually cited as an example of the failure of economic sanctions. In those years, in the midst of the Cold War, the United States stopped buying sugar from Cuba and selling it everything else, while many Latin American countries broke relations with the island, egged on by Washington. 

It was the era when Cuba sent troops abroad or attempted to oust Latin American governments by force, while Washington in turn tried to kill Fidel Castro and put an end to his regime, a Soviet satellite that had emerged a few kilometers from Florida in 1959, during the administration of Ike Eisenhower. 

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, fearful of the reactions of the bellicose Cuban neighbor to whom, sotto voce, he imputed Kennedy’s death (he lived and died convinced of that), and resigned to coexist with Moscow’s appendix stuck to his side, desisted from trying to liquidate or overthrow Castro and opted for “containing” him. 

Containment was a Cold War tool that consisted of three hostile but legitimate measures: economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and intense adverse propaganda. The working theory was that those three weapons of harassment, applied firmly for a long time, could lead to the implosion of the enemy State.

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Naturally, to contain the adversary required continuity in the White House’s strategy, but none of that was possible in a political system such as the American. “Electoral reason” ended up on top, and the newcomers to government brought new solutions for the old conflicts or new conflicts to which they could devote themselves frantically, because there was no political upside to trying to solve old rifts that were given up for lost.

U.S. society lived with an eye to the future — changes, innovation, inventions — and was not capable of sustaining long-range efforts anchored in the past.

The defeat in Vietnam was the turning point. The United States emerged battered and demoralized. Nixon acknowledged the failure and sought relations with China, hand in hand with Henry Kissinger, a fellow convinced of the virtues of realpolitik and the inconvenience of principles.

But it was Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, who discarded the policy of diplomatic isolation foisted on Cuba by dismantling the O.A.S. resolutions and continuing to sell the Castro brothers American cars manufactured in Argentina, a policy begun by Nixon. Later, Jimmy Carter finished the job by opening in Havana a U.S. “Interests Section,” which was a way to reestablish relations. 

From that point on, the containment of Cuba ceased to exist. Little by little, the objective of terminating the dictatorship was pushed aside, although some tenacious exiles, led by Jorge Mas Canosa, managed to start Radio-TV Martí during the Reagan administration and lobbied Bush’s Congress into approving the Torricelli Law and, later, in the Clinton years, the so-called Helms-Burton Law. That was an excellent legislative tool, if only someone in the White House had wanted to use it to the fullest.

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Nevertheless, in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was toppled, or in 1991, when the USSR, the communist camp in Europe, and even Marxism as a theoretical reference disappeared, it would have been relatively easy for George Bush Sr. or his successor, Bill Clinton, to reprise the old Cuban confrontation and put an end to the Castros’ tyranny — for which they could have counted on Yeltsin’s and the Russians’ discreet support.

But both decided to cling to the comfy idea that Cuba’s dictatorship was obsolete and discredited and would collapse under the weight of its own incompetence. 

In reality, their reasoning concealed a somewhat selfish calculation; it was a very old dispute, without handles in the social panorama of the 1990s, whose worst aspects had been locally discounted.  Putting an end to the Cuban dictatorship carried certain risks and lacked political cost-effectiveness. 

That was probably true. George Bush Sr. did not easily benefit from the invasion into Panama in 1989, to remove from circulation an unpleasant dictator like Noriega. Shortly thereafter, he lost the election to Clinton. Then came Chávez and the anti-American and anti-West mob of 21st-Century Socialism, but Washington insisted on seeing them “as a nuisance, not as a danger.” 

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What were the consequences of letting the Cuban dictatorship alive and well? The irrefutable Argentine historian, Juan Bautista (Tata) Yofre, summarizes them in the title of one of his books: “It Was Cuba.” In reality, it is Cuba who is causing the trouble: One and a half million Venezuelan exiles, narco-states in Venezuela and Bolivia, a pseudo-democracy in Nicaragua, Iran’s untold presence in the Americas, while in Colombia, the FARC sharpen their teeth in preparation to seize power by other means. 

To sum up, the economic sanctions did not fail. The politicians who should have implemented them failed. They grew tired. They changed their objectives. The Castros remained alone on the boxing ring and continued to fight. That’s where we stand. 

Carlos Alberto Montaner–Journalist and writer.  His latest book is the novel A Time for Scoundrels.

Frank Rodriguez Junior
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