Context Matters

During a Senate Finance Committee hearing on U.S./Cuba policy last week, Chairman Max Baucus opened with a Publilius Syrus quote, “It is folly to punish your neighbor by fire when you live next door.”  The claim is that the U.S. is punishing Cuba with economic sanctions.  As with any quote used in this manner, context matters.

The U.S. government is not punishing Cuba, rather our policy has naturally progressed in response to Cuban Communist Party behavior that runs directly counter to U.S. interests and regional concerns.  Critics of our current stance enjoy saying that U.S. policy is outdated, rooted in the Cold War yet this is simply not the case.

While U.S. policy can be traced to Cuba embracing Communism during the Cold War during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and subsequent acts beyond the period that made Soviet expansionism in the Western Hemisphere a reality,  these laws and regulations have been repeatedly updated since at least 1992. 

For a point of reference, consider that the Berlin Wall began to be dismantled in 1989.  In addition to the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 that update a Cold War-era system of sanctions there was a second major law passed, the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act of 1996 that further gave the Executive branch more, not less, powers to deal with the Cuba problem.  These two laws and the subsequent relations that have been issued pursuant to them should put to rest the argument that somehow our policy is outdated; however, people on both sides of this debate keep repeating as if it never happened.

If we have been remiss in anything it has been in a follow-up plan that correctly enforces U.S. law as Congress intended and as the circumstances dictate.   There is nothing on the books that says we have to reward a State Sponsor of Terrorism, who plants spies in our highest levels of the intelligence communist, who cooperates with other state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran, with anything.  Quite the opposite. 

The Executive has wide authorities, no matter what Members of Congress may have to say on this point, to execute these laws in the interest of the U.S.  This includes banning the travel by U.S. citizens and Cuban nationals to Cuba or limit engagement by U.S. companies in that market.  The Supreme Court has ruled several times on this issue and it is legally sound and established. 

The policy, not legal debate about easing U.S. travel and export/import restrictions to Cuba should be secondary and not the primary point of discussion with regards to U.S./Cuba policy.  While we grant that Cuba may pose no military direct threat to the U.S., Cuba remains a belligerent regional power and an asymmetrical threat to the U.S. and our partners in the region. 

While it is true that we allow travel to Iran or North Korea and other Communist countries such as China, none of these examples frequently cited by engagement proponents rest ninety miles from our shores or rely on tourism as a primary means to generate dollars for its economy.  Furthermore, Cuba has at least a limited biological weapons program capability and has tried to make operational a Soviet-era nuclear reactor.

For a country that desires close relations with the U.S., the Communist Party of Cuba clearly has a strange un-neighborly way of showing it.   It is well documented that Cuba has one of the most aggressive espionage networks aimed at U.S. government and commercial entities.  Right after the attacks of 09/11/01, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst was arrested after several months of close surveillance after it was discovered she was stealing U.S. secrets to the Cubans for several years.   And while on the subject of a post-09/11/01 world, our “neighbor’s” leader said while in Iran just a few months before the attacks that “together we can bring America to its knees.”

What benefits pro-engagement forces see in working with the Cuban Communist Party is perplexing in light of the support the Cuban Communist Party and its intelligence apparatus provides to governments such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or other spokes of the anti-American Axis.  Why would we seek to grant it the two things that it so desperately wants:  moral legitimacy and hard cash to fuel tourism, that in turn, will fuel the system?

The Cuban Communist Party has a choice and it is clearly articulated in U.S. law.  The U.S. will not accept a succession from one dictator to another.   On our end, anything that weakens the potential for this taking place, including travel and easing trade, must be avoided.  Any actions to the contrary will most likely put in jeopardy the very principle of U.S. policy today, a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.

If our goal is to left freedom capture the hearts of the Cuban people and take back the government in a peaceful manner, the U.S. standing firm in our current position, and strengthening our sanctions against the Cuban Communist Party if necessary, is the only reasonable approach.  A majority of the Cuban people will remember who stood with them at that critical hour and they will recall that while we stood with them, the Europeans and many Latin American powers either stood idly by and did nothing for close to fifty years or, worse, openly supported Cuban-style apartheid.  We could have only hope for such a political dividend in Iraq or Afghanistan the past few years.

If Cuba were a worthy adversary or one capable of project superior force against the strongest military and diplomatic power in the world and region, the quote used in the opening of the hearing this weak,  “It is folly to punish your neighbor by fire when you live next door,” would make some sense.  All things being equal, however,  the Cuban Communist Party knows it would be folly to directly engage the U.S. in that manner.  The only punishment meted out in Cuba today is by the Cuban Communist Party, not the U.S.

“We simply rob ourselves when we make presents to the dead,” goes another of the many Syrus quotes.  Changing U.S. policy today would do just that, reward a system that is surely on its political deathbed and we would be no better for it.

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