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Cuban Embargo: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Once again, Cuba has asked the United Nations to help end the U.S. economic, financial and trade embargo. Havana says this blockade cost it more than $242 million last year. The embargo also stymies Cuban access to foreign capital from other nations, because investors face possible U.S. sanctions for doing business with Cuba.

Polls show that most Americans favor dropping the U.S. embargo and our ban on travel to Cuba. Instead of scrapping it, however, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are clinging to the policies they inherited. In policy terms, it's the equivalent of scientists insisting the world is flat.

Nothing succeeds like failure in imperial Washington. So while Washington's failed Cuba policy has endured for half a century, its proponents ask us to "give it time."

This policy has flopped since its inception. In July 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower cut Cuba's sugar quota to punish Cuba for expropriating U.S. companies. The Soviet Union formally entered the U.S.-Cuban dispute to buy Cuban sugar. In October, Ike imposed a partial embargo that President John F. Kennedy completed in February 1962, by which time Cuba had expropriated all U.S. companies.

Early U.S. pressure on Cuba's revolutionary government wasn't just economic. Responding to Fidel Castro's disobedience in early 1959, Eisenhower authorized Cuban exiles to launch terrorist attacks on Cuba. He ordered the CIA to overthrow the regime in early 1960, but withheld the order to unleash 1,500 Cuban exiles the CIA had trained to invade the island.

In April 1961, Kennedy succumbed to pressure and sent the exiles to their defeat at the Bay of Pigs, staining the young president's reputation. Instead of trying to move on from that fiasco by coming to terms with Cuba, Kennedy sought revenge. The United States sponsored assassination attempts and thousands of armed attacks against Cuba. Ironically, before Kennedy signed his tightened embargo order, he ordered an ample supply of his favorite Cuban cigars.

Fidel has handed off the reins of government to his brother, Raul Castro. They have survived the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations.

Obama administration officials know better than to ask the obvious question: What exactly did Cuba do to the United States to merit terrorism and economic strangulation? The answer then and now: by being disobedient, refusing to abide by Washington's interpretation of the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine.

In August 1961, Fidel offered an olive branch in response to the armed assaults. Che Guevara met with Richard Goodwin, JFK's Latin America adviser. If Cuba cut military ties with the Soviets, stopped exporting revolution, and compensated expropriated U.S. companies, would Kennedy cease his violence?

According to Goodwin, in an account he relayed during a Bay of Pigs seminar in Havana in 2001, Kennedy--puffing on a cigar from Che--responded: "Weakness. Turn up the heat." One month later, Fidel went to his last deterrent. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stationed nuclear missiles on the island. In October 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter relaxed the embargo and travel ban. Ronald Reagan tightened them again. Succeeding presidents (including Obama) responding to various interests--but not the national interest--diddled with the screws as well.

Reagan privatized Cuba policy, transferring it from Washington to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. Cuba survived. Cubans needing certain medicine or medical equipment urgently from the United States suffered--as did the Cuban economy and thus all Cubans. In the 1990s, I tried unsuccessfully to convince then-Representative Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) to not pursue his "Torricelli Bill." I said the embargo hurt most Cubans materially. He said Cubans could buy supposedly banned equipment elsewhere, claiming Cuban propaganda promoted "the pain argument." Logically, if the embargo didn't hurt Cuba, why maintain it? To punish Fidel--symbolically.

Does Washington define success by gloating over decades of consistent failure? Will Obama remain stuck in this incongruous Cuba policy legacy or exhibit some spine?

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