The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1579

August 30, 2002

August 30, 2002 | Executive Summary on

Executive Summary: Time For Consensus On Cuba

On May 20, 2002, President Bush proposed his "Initiative for a New Cuba," promising to ease the 43-year-old U.S. trade embargo--but only if the regime takes concrete steps to enact democratic reforms and adopt market-based economics. This "step-by-step" approach has already been challenged by a congressional amendment to the pending FY 2003 Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act that would eliminate funding for the enforcement of federal regulations controlling business transactions with Cuba and U.S. citizen travel to the island.

While a debate on improving U.S.-Cuba policy is needed, a struggle that ends with a divided front is not. The record shows that sustained pressure has encouraged modest reforms in Cuba: Dealing with Castro on his terms has resulted in none. Rather than work at cross purposes, the White House and Congress should identify America's key interests and then fill in the details of an improved U.S.-Cuba policy to

  • Deny support to a belligerent dictator by maintaining sanctions until there is a change in behavior;
  • Promote prosperity for America and Cuba by providing incentives for meaningful reform where possible; and
  • Support Cuban democrats by expanding U.S. outreach to Cuban citizens and help for Cuban non-governmental organizations.

Unyielding Belligerence
Fidel Castro has never been a friend of the United States. After coming to power in 1959, he expropriated American-owned oil refineries and other properties, made Cuba a Soviet satellite, and allowed Russian generals to place nuclear missiles in Cuba--aimed at the United States. Supported by the communist bloc, he armed and trained revolutionaries throughout Latin America and in Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.

Various U.S. Presidents have tried to craft better relations with Cuba, but the central figure in this drama--Fidel Castro--has never permitted it. Taking a tough stance against communism, President Ronald Reagan set the stage for limited reforms by helping to repel Cuban- and Soviet-backed revolutions in Central America and
the Caribbean in the 1980s. These actions contributed to the collapse of Soviet communism and the loss of $5 billion to $6 billion in subsidies to the Cuban government, forcing such concessions to capitalism as limited self-employment, open markets for the sale of surplus farm produce, and the circulation of U.S. dollars on the island. Despite these setbacks, Castro still restricts civil liberties, and his regime remains hostile to the United States.

Engagement vs. Pressure
Although Castro's own blockade is to blame for Cuba's isolation and poor economy, there are those who argue that lifting sanctions would end a decades-old standoff and tame Castro's belligerent personality. But other countries' commercial relations with Cuba have achieved no improvement in behavior. Canada trades with, aids, and invests in Cuba, yet its pleas for Castro to respect human rights and release jailed dissidents have been consistently ignored.

While Washington's cold-shoulder strategy toward Cuba has not been universally copied by other nations, it has spurred U.S. allies to take action. Since 1996, the European Union has urged the Cuban government to respect human rights, reform its criminal code, release political prisoners, and comply with international human rights practices. This year, Uruguay became the first Latin American country to sponsor a resolution in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights calling on Castro to respect civil liberties. Such pressure has helped open space for Cuban dissidents, promoting the development of independent civil society.

Toward Consensus on Cuba
A self-determining, market-oriented Cuba would make a better neighbor and more reliable trade partner. It would be less disposed to support subversive movements and populist politicians in the hemisphere and would reduce the exodus of rafters risking a dangerous voyage to the United States to escape tyranny. Furthermore, with the rule of law and a free labor force, potential investments in Cuba would more likely experience growth and profitability.

As the 75-year-old dictator falls increasingly out of step with the times and Cuban dissidents gain strength, lifting sanctions would signal America's acquiescence to the current regime and serve Castro's purposes by indicating support for the status quo. Before further modifications are attempted, the Administration and Congress should identify common objectives for dealing with Cuba and then agree on strategies to achieve these goals. Such principle-based objectives should include the following:

  • Defend U.S. geopolitical interests. The United States should not aid antagonistic regimes. Normal relations should be extended only on condition that Castro end his international mischief and take steps toward internal reform. Sales of U.S. goods to the regime should remain on a cash basis until Cuba adopts market reforms.
  • Promote economic opportunity. Washington should reward steps toward the development of an authentic market economy in which Cuba's 11 million citizens can participate by easing U.S. travel restrictions and permitting U.S.-Cuban joint ventures when Cuba adopts market and labor reforms. America should provide micro-enterprise credits for independent, self-employed Cubans.
  • Develop potential allies. Ordinary Cubans should know they have an ally in their quest to end dependence on a corrupt and repressive state. To this end, the United States should provide scholarships for Cuban students, lift restrictions on remittances sent to relatives in Cuba, and enhance efforts to inform the Cuban populace about democratic governance and market economics.

While U.S. policies cannot turn Cuba into an instant democracy, they can help to promote the construction of a democratic regime a step at a time. To be effective, U.S. policy should not entail the expectation that Fidel Castro will return any favors. Washington should focus on constraining Castro's international adventures, prodding further concessions to market economics, and penetrating the regime's blockade on human rights and free choice. When Castro is gone, America should provide transition leaders with genuine incentives to make changes that can transform Cuba from a pariah and prison farm to a good neighbor and trade partner.

Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy