33 days from now will be the 12th anniversary of a short speech on US-Cuba policy that Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) gave on the floor of the United States Senate.
He charged then President Bill Clinton with keeping US-Cuba policy a “captive of Cold war mentality.” Bingaman, then, said times had changed and America needed a new policy course — particularly in travel and humanitarian measures designed to promote intra-family contact between Cuban and Cuban-American families. That was more than a decade ago. Times have changed even more now.
Senator Bingaman’s speech is worth reading in full, just to get a quick snap-shot of how little US-Cuban policy realities have changed:
SENATOR JEFF BINGAMAN — 8 MAY 1995
Mr. President, I first want to say a few words about our policy toward a neighboring country, Cuba .
The United States objectives in Cuba are not in dispute. Our primary objective is to move Cuba to a more democratic form of government and to a government with a greater respect for human rights. Also, of course, we want to see the lives of the Cuban people improve economically, and we want to see our historically close ties with this island neighbor restored.
First, let us review some of the facts that led us to the present circumstances we find ourselves in. Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba some 34 years ago, when I was still in high school and before several Members of this Congress were even born. He quickly established an authoritarian and anti-United States regime. He declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in December 1961. Early in 1961, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba .
A year later, in February 1962, we imposed a comprehensive trade embargo. The reasons cited for that were three.
First, Castro’s expropriation without compensation, much property owned by U.S. citizens, in excess of $1 billion.
Second, the Castro regime’s obvious efforts to export revolution to other parts of the world.
And , third, the increasingly close ties that existed then between Castro’s Government and the Soviet Union.
That was 33 years ago. During the past 33 years, we have maintained the trade embargo in place. In April 1961, we tried unsuccessfully in the Bay of Pigs to have Castro overthrown militarily. We began in 1985 to use Radio Marti to undermine Cuban support for Fidel Castro, and in the Bush administration just a few years ago we added TV Marti to the mix, as well.
In 1992, we passed the Cuban Democracy Act in an effort to tighten our trade sanctions. This year, we are being urged by some in this body to pass a new and tough measure entitled ‘The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act’ in order to give Castro what the supporters of that legislation refer to as the ‘final push.’
With all due respect to President Clinton and to many here in Congress, our policy toward Cuba today is still captive of the cold war mentality that created it in the first place. Simply put, the world has changed, and we continue to pretend otherwise.
Mr. President, this is 1995. Our 34-year-old policy of trying to remove or alter the behavior of Fidel Castro by isolating him diplomatically, politically, and economically has failed. History has passed that policy by. And the cold war, which provided much of the rationale for our policy, is now over.
We have normalized relations with China — Communist China, I point out. We have normalized relations with the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia, and with all the former States of the Soviet Union.
This morning, President Clinton goes to Moscow to meet with Boris Yeltsin, not to find ways to isolate Moscow or to impose sanctions on Moscow for their human rights abuses in Chechnya or elsewhere; our President travels to Moscow to strengthen our relations with that important country.
Mr. President, U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to adjust to this new reality, just as our policy toward those other nations has adjusted. For over three decades, we have tried to exclude Cuba from acceptance by other nations. But our policy of trying to isolate Cuba diplomatically has made the United States the odd man out in the world community rather than Cuba . Of the 35-member nations of the Organization of American States, all but 5 recognize the Cuban Government and have normal diplomatic relations with it.
The Senator from North Carolina, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argues that the way out of this absurd situation is to turn up the pressure on Castro. As he says, ‘It is time to give Castro the final push.’
Mr. President, the sanctions and the embargoes and the pressure that we put on Castro in the past 34 years have not undermined the support of the Cuban people for his Government as we have wished. In fact, a strong case can be made that the constant menacing by Uncle Sam has been used very effectively by Castro to divert the attention of the Cuban people from the shortcomings of his own Government and his own policies.
Mr. President, this administration has been slow to face the need to change in our policy toward Cuba . But last week, we hopefully saw the beginning of a more rational policy toward that nation. Last week, the administration announced that in the future, illegal immigrants from Cuba will be treated as other illegal immigrants into this country, and I for one hope that more steps will follow.
For example, as I stated here in the Senate several weeks ago, I believe the President should act to end the travel ban on Americans who wish to travel to Cuba . The President should also restore the right of Cuban-Americans to make small remittances to their families and to their relatives in Cuba . In my view, the time has also come when we should begin to normalize trade relations with that country.
Mr. President, I realize that it is politically difficult to change a long-established policy. It is especially difficult given the political posturing that is preceding our upcoming Presidential election. But the time has come to acknowledge that our current policy toward Cuba has failed miserably. Newt Gingrich referred yesterday to Cuba as ‘a relic of an age that is gone.’ I agree that Castro’s Government is an anachronism. But it is no more so than our own misguided policy for dealing with that country.
Most agree that President Nixon’s greatest achievement was his decision to change United States foreign policy and move toward normal relations with Communist China. That was many years ago, when the cold war was still very much with us. Now the cold war is over, and a new and a reasonable policy for our relations with Cuba is long overdue.
I for one believe that the responsible course for us to proceed with is to establish a new policy now.
After reading this passage again, there is one enormously glaring difference between today’s Cuba and the concerns about Cuba then — and in the decades preceding Senator Bingaman’s comment.
Cuba used to export soldiers, weapons, and the ideology if not entirely the reality of Fidel and Che style revolution.
Today, Cuba exports doctors. More on that another time — but just as a quick aside, Cuba has exported tens of thousands of doctors to some of the poorest and most remote parts of Latin America as well as other parts of the world. Cuba actually maintains a highly successful bartering arrangement of doctors for oil with Venezuela. This is clearly a page out of the ‘spirit’ of the John F. Kennedy initiated Peace Corps. (For other dimensions of Cuba’s international medical “public diplomacy”, a great resource is MEDICC.)
President Bush, in contrast, offered during his recent trip through Latin America to those in medical need some treatment on the USNS Comfort, an American warship outfitted to provide medical support at “ports” that the ill would need to travel to.
Specifically, the USNS Comfort will make port calls in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname. President Bush’s offer is a somewhat commendable, first step — but in contrast, Cuban doctors are deployed in small villages and remote mountain regions. They are embedded in countries much like Peace Corps staff are. But American style relief comes on a war ship with the needy making their way to us, not us doing more to reach them.
While too much of American foreign policy has become over-militarized, Cuba’s, quite remarkably, has become more humanized and more reflective of the hard gains that can come from Joe Nye’s notion of “soft power.”
— Steve Clemons