The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

The Cuba Embargo: A Personal Observation

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


In June, 2017, representatives from a handful of right-leaning organizations, including Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), participated in a “people-to-people” delegation to Cuba.  The “educational outreach” trip was arranged by Engage Cuba, “the leading coalition of private companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba,” in conjunction with Cuba Educational Travel (CET).  Based in Naragansett, Rhode Island, CET is the tour facilitator that has been awarded the necessary licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control “to organize trips to Cuba in full compliance with rules and regulations governing travel to Cuba by individuals under U.S. jurisdiction.”

According to the U.S. State Department’s website, “The United States maintains a comprehensive economic embargo on the Republic of Cuba.  In February 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed an embargo on trade between the United States and Cuba, in response to certain actions taken by the Cuban Government, and directed the Departments of Commerce and the Treasury to implement the embargo, which remains in place today.”

Our groups’ June 2017 visit to Cuba (specifically, Havana) was intended to convince the participants—conservatives and libertarians who might, in turn, have some influence with the Republican majorities in Congress—to temper any drastic rollback by President Donald Trump’s administration of President Barack Obama’s earlier opening to the island republic.  President Obama had announced, on December 17, 2014, that “we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will being to normalize relations between our two countries.”  He outlined several major goals: reestablish diplomatic ties; review Cuba’s designation as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism;” increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba; increase the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba; remove limits on remittances; increase telecommunications connections between the U.S. and Cuba; and, finally, encourage debate in Congress for lifting the embargo.

Then, on June 16, 2017, the White House released a “Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy,” in which it was announced that President Trump was altering U.S. policy to achieve four objectives:

  1. Enhance compliance with United States law—in particular the provisions that govern the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism;
  2. Hold the Cuban regime accountable for oppression and human rights abuses ignored under the Obama policy;
  3. Further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people; and
  4. Lay the groundwork for empowering the Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty.

Presumably, our center-right group was to come away from the experience in favor of lifting the embargo against Cuba; no surprise, really, given the mission statement of our facilitators.  However, unlike most of the other participants, this was not my first trip to Cuba; in fact, it was my third.  Those previous visits, coupled with my family’s experiences in the late 1950s and my own personal recollections of Caribbean life in the 1960s and early 1970s, undoubtedly influence my perspective.

I first traveled to Cuba as a Marine Corps lieutenant on a training mission at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in 1993, in the early years of the so-called “Special Period,” when Cuba was sent reeling by the precipitous loss of support from its chief benefactor, the Soviet Union, which dissolved on December 26, 1991.  In his book, Cuba:  Between Reform & Revolution, Louis A. Perez, Jr. writes that “[c]ommercial relations with the former Soviet Union declined by more than 90 percent, from $8.7 billion in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 1991 and $750 million in 1993.”  The vestiges of the Cold War era remained, though, as we were reminded that the Castro brothers – Fidel, the president, and Raul, the defense minister – were keenly aware of our military presence, perhaps even inspecting us, from time to time, from the watchtowers (just beyond the base’s perimeter) that “mirrored” our own observation posts.

More recently, along with fellow members of the Texas Lyceum (a public policy and leadership development organization based in my home state), I traveled back to the island in June, 2016, following the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, as decreed by President Obama.  The Lyceum delegation sought to better understand the intricacies of the U.S.-Cuba relationship, not to mention the potential benefits that might redound to Texas, in light of the new policy.  Interestingly, during one of the government-sponsored lectures, the Cuban university professor pointedly highlighted the consternation of the Castro apparatchiks toward the vocal opposition of the regime generally and the Obama policy specifically, from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), coincidentally a Lyceum alumnus.

During last month’s trip, I explained to our Cuban government briefers that those of us “of a certain age” still struggled with the concept of rapprochement, while a Castro remained in power.  For instance, my parents (living in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1959-60) befriended a Cuban expatriate, whose father had been a successful car dealer of American makes and models.  At first, the businessman and his family, no fans of the brutal and corrupt Batista regime that had been overthrown, had been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the revolutionary government that took power on New Year’s Day, 1959.  However, after a beloved aunt (a nurse, caught after curfew following a house call to a sick patient) was interrogated and physically searched by Castro’s henchmen, then murdered with the handgun that she had been carrying for personal protection, the family escaped to Florida with whatever they could wear and carry in their small boat.

Later, as an “oilfield brat” in Venezuela, I remember vividly Cuba’s chief export:  socialist revolution.  American expats were periodically restricted to quarters (and we kids would get to stay home from school) when Marxist guerrillas and sympathizers of Che Guevara, the Argentine hero of the Cuban revolution, took to the streets to burn cars and intimidate the “yanquis.”  In those days, Venezuela’s democratic sensibilities enjoyed a greater foothold in society, so the threat did not seem critical.  But by the end of the century, following the demise of the Soviets and the rise of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela would become Cuba’s chief benefactor and fellow agitator.

For me, these personal and familial experiences compete with an (otherwise) philosophical predisposition in favor of the liberating power of capitalism and free trade.  And well-intentioned people on either side of the issue can, understandably, disagree.  Very passionately.

Indeed, our Cuban handlers, politely yet pointedly, observed that even a rudimentary understanding of the U.S. constitutional system informs the outside observer that each state is represented by two (and only two) senators.  Cuba, they said, instead has three:  Sens. Cruz, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Each of Cuban descent, the three outspoken U.S. senators have generally led the political debate on Cuba policy.  Reacting to the Trump Administration announcement, Sen. Menendez said:

Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction to reverse an ill-advised and misguided Cuba policy… Allowing the Castro regime, as the previous administration did, to steadily and unilaterally reintegrate into the global economy without firm commitments to improve conditions for the Cuban people only emboldened an oppressive dictatorship to tighten its stranglehold over its citizens … given the regime’s effective control of the organized tourism industry, continuing to permit American cruise ships and flights to the island still pumps economic lifeblood into the regime.  Those who romanticize present day Cuba and believe foreign investment will facilitate the country’s transition to democracy, willfully ignore the fact that it is the dictatorship—not the Cuban people—that benefits from their investment.

In a similar vein, on June 16, 2017, Sen. Cruz noted that the Trump administration’s actions “are common sense measures I have supported in the past, particularly authoring legislation with Sen. Rubio to prohibit financial transactions with Cuba’s military-controlled entities.  President Obama’s normalization policy with Communist Cuba has fundamentally undermined U.S. interests and strengthened the Castros’ control over the island.  As a result, American dollars are directly funneled to the Cuban military which sustains the regimes’ brutal activities.”

In a June 19, 2017 Miami Herald joint op-ed, “We Welcome President Trump’s New Cuba Policy,” Sens. Rubio and Menendez, as well as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), whose aunt Mirta Diaz-Balart was Fidel Castro’s first wife, pointed out the following:

Cuba’s military monopoly, Grupo de Administracion Empresarial SA (“GAESA”), which is run by Raul Castro’s son-in-law, is the biggest business enterprise on the island, and also serves as the brutal instrument for suppressing the Cuban people’s liberty and right to self-determination.  GAESA controls every aspect of the Cuban economy – including tourism – through its shell companies.  It even controls foreign remittances flowing Cubans from relatives abroad, taking a significant percentage of every transaction.  GAESA has taken full advantage of the new U.S. engagement.  It has absorbed all of the benefits of American business, and has left virtually nothing for the average citizen on the island.  This flow of funds has only given the Castro regime additional resources to oppress those who dare to freely express themselves.  Nothing will change in Cuba as long as GAESA maintains its tight control over the economy, and freedoms are not protected.  President Trump understands this, and his new Cuba policy will ensure that the United States truly empowers the Cuban people instead of the dictatorship.  The changes he announced will assist Cubans struggling for liberty by ensuring that U.S. policy toward Cuba actually benefits the Cuban people.

Critics of the embargo argue that, for a fledgling private sector comprised chiefly of “paladares” (homes that have been transformed into restaurants) and other private residences doubling as bed-and-breakfasts, heightened restrictions on American travel hurt this entrepreneurial class the most, since tourists from other, non-sanctioning countries typically stay in the more upscale, government-run hotels and beach resorts.  Moreover, supporters of repealing the embargo maintain that “government-run” does not (necessarily) mean “military-run;” therefore, some flexibility in travel should be allowed.

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union on June 18, 2017, Sen. Rubio observed that the Trump policy “basically says that [when] American travelers [go] to Cuba, they’ll continue to fly on commercial airlines or get there on a cruise, but when they get there they have to spend their money primarily with individual Cubans who own those private businesses, which is [what] everybody who supported the Obama opening was always bragging about …  And so American travelers to Cuba will have to spend their money with them instead of the Cuban military.  That was the goal of this, is to empower individual Cubans to be economically independent of the Castro military and of the Castro regime.”

In a July 18, 2017 letter to the U.S. secretaries of the Treasury, State, and Commerce, eight Cuban entrepreneurs acknowledged President Trump’s “wishes to encourage the growth of the Cuban private sector.”  They included several policy recommendations in support of Cuba’s private sector.  First, allow continued travel from the U.S. as individuals, as they are more likely (than groups) to “frequent private lodging, restaurants and transportation services.”  Second, allow Cuba’s private sector access to goods and remittances.  Third, liberalize rules regarding Cuban bank accounts in the U.S.  And finally, continue bilateral dialogue and engagement.

The entreaties from Cuba’s would-be capitalists are compelling ones, and from firsthand observations, they are authentic.  By the same token, the skepticism of the anti-Castro “old guard” toward the remnants of the regime is equally understandable.  If King Solomon were alive today, he might appreciate President Trump’s own “baby-splitting” objective to ensure that American dollars flow only to non-military recipients.  If successful, a forward-looking, next-generation of Cubans tired of privation from failed Marxist dogma could cleave itself from government domination.  On the other hand, even the sharpest of Solomonic scalpels might be dulled by such a daunting challenge; i.e., ensuring that American dollars avoid the reach of a military machine so marbled throughout the meat of the Cuban economy.

A clearer path forward may reveal itself in the not-too-distant future.  If Raul Castro honors his promise to step down as president in early 2018, and without a Castro as head of government for the first time in 59 years, U.S.-Cuba relations—absent the personal animosities of the protagonists—may experience a long-awaited renaissance and the acceleration of shared, but long-stifled, goals.  In any case, Castro will eventually (but inevitably) be gone from the scene.  So, too, will most of his antagonists.  Whether Cuba’s private sector can hold out that long remains to be seen.

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