Washington Loosens the Knot (Just a Little)

September 25, 2007

It was a far cry from the opening even many Republican moderates had urged, but Bill Clinton's announcement in early January of some small changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba may have provided the most significant positive development in that policy since the 1970s. While the particular changes were modest, they created wedges in the embargo that had seemed iron-clad when the restrictive Helms-Burton Bill became law in 1996. Clinton also fueled the growing momentum for a change in U.S. policy. The Administration may have intended to halt that impulse by fashioning minor "people-to-people" opportunities, yet the changes further undermined the rationale of the embargo and weakened U.S. demands that other countries abide by its extraterritorial provisions.

Taken together, the package of changes has gotten us unstuck, one close observer of the process argued. Indeed, Washington's obsession with Fidel Castro had stymied efforts at ending U.S. hostility toward Cuba for nearly 40 years, and U.S. policy had been aptly characterized until now by the simple formula of "waiting for Fidel to go away."[1] In effect, after nine U.S. presidents—including Clinton—have failed to get rid of the Cuban leader, this Administration acknowledged that Fidel Castro may not leave soon, and that U.S. policy toward Cuba had to be shaped in accord with this reality.

Unsurprisingly, the January announcement was couched in a language that the Administration hoped would satisfy conservative Cuban-American constituencies in Florida and New Jersey.[2] Clinton asserted that the measures reflected U.S. "compassion for the Cuban people, and our determination to provide the people of Cuba with hope in their struggle against a system that for four decades has denied them even basic human rights."[3] With that humanitarian justification, Clinton proposed a number of measures, three of which stand out.

First, sales of food to entities independent of the Cuban government, such as religious groups and private restaurants, would now be permitted, as would sales of agricultural inputs to private farmers and farmers in cooperatives producing food for sale in private markets. Second, any U.S. citizen would now be able to send up to $300 every three months to any Cuban family, and any nongovernmental organization (NGO), including foundations, would be permitted to send larger remittances to independent organizations in Cuba.[4] Third, direct mail service between Cuba and the United States, suspended in 1963, would now be reestablished.

In addition, the State Department said that it would streamline licensing procedures for U.S. and Cuban citizens traveling between the two countries—which could include the approval of multiple-visit and group licenses—and that regular direct passenger charter flights would be approved between cities other than Havana and Miami. At the same time, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright promised there would be an expansion of educational, cultural, humanitarian, religious, journalistic and athletic exchanges, and she announced that the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national baseball team would be permitted to play exhibition games in Havana and Baltimore's Camden Yards this spring.[5]

For a number of reasons, these seemingly minor proposals may turn out to be quite significant. For starters, even this slight relaxation of the embargo went beyond what analysts had said would be possible under the Helms-Burton Act. When asked whether the changes were consistent with the law, a senior National Security Council adviser asserted publicly that "Helms-Burton codified the embargo and at the same time, it codified the President's licensing power. That is, it codified a process by which there was an embargo to which exceptions could be granted on a case-by-case basis by the President."[6] If this interpretation stands, it opens the door to virtually any license for trade with Cuba that any president might wish to make.[7] This would enable President Clinton, for example, to license the sale of medicine to Cuba at a future date.

Second, the changes were made unilaterally, without any demand that the Cuban government meet conditions or reciprocate. In contrast, first-term Clinton policy called for "calibrated responses" by the United States in reaction to demands that the Cuban government improve its human rights record. Indeed, reciprocity had governed U.S. policy since the 1970s, when the Ford and Carter Administrations closed off efforts at détente with Cuba because of the Castro government's policies in Africa. One official reasoned that reciprocity was unnecessary now because the Administration's actions were directed at the Cuban people, not the Cuban government.

Third, in proposing to license the sale of food to the country's proliferating privately owned restaurants, and the sale of farm equipment, seed and fertilizer to the 165,000 private farmers in Cuba, the Administration has pierced the embargo in a potentially major way. The plan could enable U.S. salesmen to travel to Cuba legally to market their products, which provides a loophole through which several major U.S. corporations—from Archer Daniels Midland to Pepsi Cola—are waiting to rush.[8]

Fourth, the proviso that U.S.-based NGOs—from churches to foundations—may be able to contribute more than $1,200 a year to Cuban NGOs could offer several U.S. groups the opportunity to support Cuban research groups, magazines and church organizations. Yet this plan has many obstacles, because the U.S. government has been cautious about recognizing any Cuban operation as nongovernmental, and the Cuban government is wary about any U.S. support for potential dissident organizations.[9] Caritas, for example, does not have a Cuban government license to import food.

Indeed, the Cuban reaction to the new U.S. policy could vitiate all of its effects. Cuban Economy Minister José Luis Rodríguez's initial comments were more dismissive than hostile, characterizing the proposals as mere "crumbs."[10] But Ricardo Alarcón, President of the Cuban National Assembly and chief architect of Cuban policy toward the United States, pointedly remarked in a radio broadcast that "the measures announced by the United States have the purpose of subverting the revolution."[11] Alarcón, echoing Raúl Castro's denunciation of the Track Two approach following the passage of Helms-Burton, described Clinton's announcement as a "new phase of the war against Cuba."[12]

Track Two, as embodied in the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act—also known as the Torricelli Bill after its principal sponsor, Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ)—is the attempt to subvert the Cuban government through the support of "civil society." It envisions aid to dissidents, to organizations that could provide a meaningful base for challenging the Cuban government, and to private businesses that could spawn an anti-socialist middle class in order to replicate the conditions that contributed to the collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. Notably, the State Department highlighted this approach in 1997 when it awarded a $500,000 grant to the rabidly anti-Castro Freedom House "to promote nonviolent change in Cuba by providing information on democracy and free markets, and supporting the reemergence of civil society."[13] In his January statement, Clinton said the new measures were "consistent with our policy of keeping pressure on the regime for democratic change while finding ways to help in developing civil society."[14]

Clinton's announcement came as the private, bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) was about to release a major set of recommendations on U.S. policy toward Cuba.[15] Produced by a task force that brought together critics and supporters of the embargo, the report advocated changes that were more extensive than the Administration's new policy. Of greatest significance, it called for the elimination of "all licensing with respect to donation and sales of food, medicines and medical products to nongovernmental and humanitarian institutions such as hospitals." The CFR report also recommended that the United States open another large loophole in the embargo unilaterally by "licensing some American business activity" to support those engaged in approved travel, to distribute humanitarian aid and sales, and to facilitate activities related to culture. In addition it proposed removing the limitation on the amount of material donated under such programs and on cash donations by private foundations. It also proposed raising the limit to $10,000 that a U.S. family could donate to a Cuban family.[16]

In bowing to the right-wing members of the task force, the CFR described its goals as an elaborate Track Two-type gambit. "Every aspect of U.S. foreign and economic policy towards Cuba should be judged by a very pragmatic standard," said the Council. "Does it contribute to rapid, peaceful, democratic change in Cuba while safeguarding the vital interests of the United States?" But,"because the right wing has endorsed its recommendations," said one Cuban official privately, "they opened the debate and started a process of changing the stalemated U.S. policy."[17] The same can be said for the new U.S. government proposals.

Some linked the timing of the Administration's policy changes to the release of the CFR report, as a way of diverting attention from the Council's call for the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.[18] But that conclusion assigns too much power to the Council on Foreign Relations, whose prominent members had not applied any serious pressure on the Clinton Administration. What concerned the Administration even more was the growing demand for a presidential commission to review Cuba policy.[19]

In October former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Lawrence Eagleburger and Senators John Warner (R-VA) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) led a bipartisan group of establishment figures in proposing that Clinton create a commission to review U.S. policy toward Cuba. Nearly everyone in the group—which included 17 Senators and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker—had indicated they believed the embargo no longer served U.S. interests.[20] Senator Helms, Cuban-American Representatives Diaz-Balart, Menendez and Ros-Lehtinen, and the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) strongly condemned the call for a commission, but National Security Adviser Sandy Berger reportedly favored the idea.[21] He responded to the group's plea by initiating an interagency process to develop a new approach toward Cuba that would begin with the creation of a bipartisan commission modeled after the 1983 Kissinger Commission on Central America.

For the remainder of 1998, the possibility of a bipartisan commission became the central focus of opponents and supporters of current U.S. policy because both sides believed it would be a vehicle the President would use to weaken the embargo. Critics of the embargo formed an unusual coalition that included organizations such as the Latin American Working Group, the moderate Cuban Committee for Democracy, and USA*Engage, an association of businesses opposed to the use of economic sanctions in general because, they argue, they stifle international trade. This last group was most anxious to remove embargoes against Iraq and Iran in order to engage in normal trade with those countries. It viewed the Cuban embargo as the most opportune first case, however, because Cuba posed the least national-security threat to the United States.[22] In May a Defense Department study had reported that Cuba poses only "a negligible threat to the United States or surrounding countries."[23]

Supporters of the embargo feared that a commission would provide a cover for Clinton to relax the embargo. They directed their efforts at influencing Vice- President Al Gore to oppose it. With images of Florida's electoral votes dangling before him, Gore reportedly weighed in strongly against the idea after learning that a commission could not complete its work until late in 1999, well into the 2000 electoral season. The death knell came when Rep. Menendez told Gore that in Miami the commission would be called the "Gore Commission."[24] At the same time, Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL)—whom Clinton had relied on previously for advice about Cuba policy—told the president that a commission would be a political "disaster" in New Jersey and South Florida.

Thus, the major element of Clinton's January announcement for the Cuban-American community was the categorical rejection of a bipartisan commission. The President sought to balance this negative decision, though, with what would appear to be positive offerings to commission advocates. It was at this point that the NSC worked with the State and Treasury Departments and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to develop the final package of proposals. The CFR report became a convenient source of ideas, according to a source close to the process, because it had been vetted already by both sides of the issue. At the last minute Secretary of State Albright also decided to announce approval of the Baltimore Orioles exhibition games—which had been under serious discussion for more than three years—to place the proposed games under the rubric of "people-to-people" engagement in order to avoid the possible interpretation that the games represented "ping-pong diplomacy" intended to open the door to a détente with Cuba.[25]

Senator Warner captured the sentiment of several players in the process when he said that the President's announcement was a "lost opportunity to have a much broader set of proposals."[26] Throughout 1998 events had built up pressure on the Administration to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, and critics feared that the President had burst the balloon with measures that hardly altered U.S. policy. Among the year's high points, Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in late January stands out. While the Pontiff requested the release of Cuba's political prisoners and more freedom for the Catholic Church, he also found common ground with Fidel in a critique of the "blind market forces" of global capitalism, and he pointedly called for an end to "oppressive economic measures—unjust and ethically unacceptable—imposed from outside the country."[27]

Cuba reacted to the Pope's plea by releasing more than 200 political prisoners, relaxing travel restrictions on priests, and permitting some church broadcasts.[28] Clinton responded in March by removing some of the minor restrictions on trade he had imposed in 1996 following Cuba's downing of two planes in the Straits of Florida, such as the ban on sending money to relatives. Still, the Pope's visit further undermined international acquiescence in the embargo. Several South American countries signed trade pacts with Cuba over the next few months, and Caribbean countries gave Fidel a hero's welcome at a summit in which the leaders signed a free-trade agreement.[29]

In Congress, a bill to end the embargo on food and medicine sales to Cuba—sponsored by Senators Dodd and Warner and supported by 20 other senators and more than 100 representatives—increasingly looked as if it had a chance to become law. Helms was concerned enough about it that he offered a plan in May to provide "humanitarian aid" to Cuba in the hope that it would give some moderates an alternative to the Dodd-Warner bill.[30] At the same time, the Clinton Administration felt compelled to agree to demands from the European Union not to enforce the Helms-Burton Act against European companies.[31] Then in October—just prior to the call for a presidential commission—the UN General Assembly voted 157-2, with 12 abstentions, to condemn the embargo. Only Israel, which itself trades with Cuba, voted with the United States.[32]

The establishment of a commission might have been the culmination of all this activity, and it is understandable that die-hard embargo supporters dreaded that Clinton would succumb to the lure of a movement aimed at ending some of the sanctions against Cuba. In reality, they had little to fear. Had the commission gotten off the ground, Clinton would more likely have fallen prey to the outcries of Senators Graham and Torricelli and made both of them members. To cover his right wing, he might well have made the commission staff a haven of unyielding Castro haters.[33] In any case, since the commission would not have issued a report until late 1999, it is difficult to imagine that it would have offered any serious plans for a relaxation of the embargo. If Clinton does want some cover to implement change, the Council of Foreign Relations offers him sufficient bipartisan legitimacy.

Yet no one in Washington believes Clinton wants to change Cuba policy. The working assumption is that he does not have a vision of what he wants with respect to Cuba, and that he only responds to pressure. Ironically then, rather than relieving demands for change, his announcement opened the door for more pressure because of the way it changed the terms of debate. Professional lobbyists for wheat growers, farm-machinery producers and pharmaceutical companies will hover over the rule makers in the State and Treasury Departments as they write the regulations in the next six months to implement the policy changes. "The devil will be in the details," one person close to the process said in an interview, and this sort of influence will be out of the public eye. The regulations will determine how extensive the opening is, and pressure on the negotiators is likely to come from all sides. Moreover, the once powerful CANF is not as important to the process as it once had been. With the death of its leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, it lost command of the initiative on Cuba policy. Its aim last year was to scuttle a proposal—the presidential commission—not to pursue one of its own. Notably, the CANF was hardly mentioned in reports of the fight over the presidential commission.[34]

Cuba will also play a role in this process. Though Alarcón's reaction to Clinton's changes was decidedly negative, he left the door open to accomodation. He welcomed the baseball diplomacy and the possibility of direct mail service be- tween the two countries. That proposal, however, is more complicated than the President suggested. Cuba asserts that international postal regulations require mail to be shipped on regularly scheduled airlines, not on charter flights which now make up the only air service between Cuba and the United States. To satisfy the requirement, the two countries would have to enter into a civil-aviation agreement. Cuba also claims it is concerned about the terrorism that could occur with direct mail service, and says that it would seek talks with the United States about curbing U.S.-based terrorists as part of negotiations over delivering the mail.

One could well argue, as Cuba specialist Wayne Smith has, that the Administration's announcement changes little, and not only because the measures themselves are inconsequential. "Sooner or later," Smith observes, "we must deal with [the Cuban] government. But that is a message that has not yet registered with the Clinton Administration."[35] To be sure, the January announcement leaves the 39-year-old premise of U.S. policy in place. The United States is still committed to the destruction of the regime in Cuba. But Clinton has launched a process that did not exist before January, and that process has opened the new possibility of waiving significant elements of the embargo, and of doing so unilaterally. Whether or not the Administration intended such a result, the logjam it helped to produce in its first six years has now been broken. The currents may now begin to move the unfrozen timbers in unexpected directions.

Philip Brenner is professor of international relations at American University, Washington, D.C. He was assisted in the research for this article by Amy Luinstra.

1. Philip Brenner, "Cuba: After Fidel," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXII, No. 2 (March/April 1988). pp. 6-11.
2. For a thoughtful discussion of this pattern, see William M. LeoGrande, "From Havana to Miami: U.S. Cuba policy as a two-level game," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 40 (Spring 1998), pp. 67-85.
3. Statement by The President, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, January 5, 1999.
4. Senior-level Cuban government and Communist Party officials would not be permitted to receive any such remittances from U.S. citizens. The current policy permits U.S. citizens to send $300 per quarter only to their family members in Cuba.
5. See the Web page, http://www.state.gov/www/regions/
6. James Dobbins, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs, National Security Council, "On-the-record briefing on Cuba," released by the Office of the Spokesman, U.S. Department of State, January 5, 1999.
7. At the time this issue went to press, four Representatives, Dan Burton (R-IN), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), said they would bring suit to prevent the President from implementing these changes because they violated the Helms-Burton law.
8. Pascal Fletcher, "U.S. farm producers eye forbidden Cuban market," Reuters, December 3, 1998. In March 1998 more than 50 U.S. corporate executives traveled to Cuba with Washington-based Alamar Associates to discuss the Cuban economy. See "U.S. Executives in Havana for Trade Talks," New York Times, March 7, 1998. Also see Linda Robinson, "An opening to Cuba? American business is pushing to loosen the embargo," U.S. News & World Report, September 28, 1998.
9. One State Department official said in an interview that there were only two or three such organizations that were "truly" nongovernmental, including a zoological organization and Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church.
10. John Rice, "Cuba Dismisses Impact of U.S. Plan," Associated Press, January 8, 1999.
11. Granma, (Havana) January 9, 1999.
12. Raúl Castro, "Report of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) Politburo approved at the Fifth PCC Central Committee Plenum in Havana on 24 March," FBIS-LAT-96-062, Daily Report, Caribbean Division, March 28, 1996.
13. "U.S. Support for Independent Groups in Cuba," Press Statement by James B. Foley, Deputy Spokesman, September 15, 1997, U.S. State Department.
14. Statement by The President, January 5, 1999.
15. Bernard W. Aronson and William D. Rogers, "U.S.-Cuban Relations in the 21st Century," Independent Task Force of the Council on Foreign Relations (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, January 1999). [Hereafter cited as "CFR Report."]
16. CFR Report. See Bernard W. Aronson and William D. Rogers, "Bringing Cuba in From the Cold," New York Times, January 2, 1999.
17. The CFR Task Force was co-chaired by Bernard Aronson, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America in the Bush Administration, and William D. Rogers, Undersecretary of State in the Ford Administration. Conservative members included Dan Fisk, who helped write the Helms-Burton Act as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), Mark Falcoff, a conservative critic of the Cuban government who has been close to the Cuban-American National Foundation, Peter Rodman, head of the Nixon Center, and Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House.
18. Tim Weiner, "U.S. Ready to Ease Some Restrictions in Policy on Cuba," New York Times, January 5, 1999.
19. Rui Ferreira and Roberto Fabricio, "Graham y Gore convencieron al Presidente," El Nuevo Herald (Miami), January 10, 1999.
20. Thomas W. Lippman, "Group Urges Review of Cuba Policy Senators, Ex-Officials Push for Commission," Washington Post, November 8, 1998; Frank Davies, "Republican VIPs urge review of Cuba policy," Miami Herald, October 14, 1998.
21. Juan O. Tamayo, "How Battle on Policy Toward Cuba Led to Easing some U.S. Restrictions," Miami Herald, January 10, 1999.
22. Rui Ferreira and Roberto Fabricio, "Graham y Gore convencieron al Presidente."
23. Steven Lee Myers, "The Pentagon Now Belittles the Menace Posed by Cuba," New York Times, May 7, 1998.
24. Juan O. Tamayo, "How Battle on Policy Toward Cuba Led to Easing some U.S. Restrictions."
25. The premature announcement of the license approvals for the exhibition games nearly scuttled the plan, as several Major League owners initially expressed fears for the safety of their teams during Florida spring training. Mark Maske, "Angelos Is Optimistic About Games vs. Cuba," Washington Post, January 7, 1999, p. D3.
26. Jonathan Wright, "U.S. Policy to Cuba in Biggest Change for Years," Reuters, January 5, 1999.
27. "Pope John Paul II, Castro Texts," Associated Press, January 25, 1998; Charles J. Hanley, "Pope Bids Farewell to Cuba, Calls on all Cubans on Island and Abroad to 'New Paths' of Reconciliation," Associated Press, January 25, 1998.
28. In December, the Cuban government restored Christmas as a regular national holiday. It had been celebrated in 1997 as an exception in anticipation of the Pope's trip.
29. "Cuba and Chile Sign Five-Year Trade Accord," Reuters, August 21, 1998; Dan Perry, "Caribbean Nations Sign Trade Pact," Associated Press, August 22, 1998; "Cuba Let into LatAm Integration Body ALADI," Reuters, November 6, 1998; "Cuban, Spanish Ties Continue to Improve," XINHUA, November 5, 1998.
30. "Helms Proposes $100 Million in U.S. Cuba Aid," Reuters, May 15, 1998.
31. Helene Cooper, Steve Liesman and John Harwood, "U.S. Ends Penalties Against Cuba Trade," Wall Street Journal, May 19, 1998.
32. William E. Gibson, "UN Vote against Embargo Leaves U.S. More Isolated than Cuba," Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, October 15, 1998.
33. As a further concession to the right, Clinton said he would expand Radio and TV Marti service, and he named Jose "Pepe" Collado as chair of the Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting to fill the vacancy created 14 months earlier by the death of Jorge Mas Canosa. See "Clinton Selection for TV-Radio Marti Wins Praise," United Press International, January 6, 1999.
34. Juan O. Tamayo, "How Battle on Policy Toward Cuba Led to Easing some U.S. Restrictions."
35. Wayne S. Smith, "Instead of Needed Changes, Administration Continues a Failed Policy," Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1999.

Tags: Cuba, US foreign policy, embargo, Bill Clinton, US politics

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