Why The Cuba Trade Embargo Still Isn't Going Anywhere

Neither Congress nor the Castros are committed enough to overturn trade sanctions yet.

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic that's making headlines around the world. Today, we speak with journalist Ann Louise Bardach, who has covered Cuba and Cuban-American politics for more than two decades.

On Dec. 17 last year, President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro jointly announced that their two governments would launch the process of normalizing diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961. A flurry of other changes accompanied that watershed moment over the past year. Americans have much more leeway to travel to the island, the U.S. struck Cuba from the "State Sponsors of Terrorism" list and direct mail service will soon be re-established.

At the same time, a half-century trade embargo against the island's Communist government remains in effect and GOP presidential hopefuls with personal or political ties to the Cuban-American exile community of South Florida, including U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have pledged to roll back the opening toward Cuba.

The WorldPost spoke with Bardach about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, whether the trade embargo will end soon, and why Jeb Bush helped free a Cuban terrorist accused of blowing up a passenger jet carrying 73 people.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Since the U.S. and Cuban governments announced they’d move toward normalizing relations, some people have predicted that the next Congress will warm to the idea of lifting the trade embargo against Cuba. Do you think that’s going to happen?

Unlikely, because of the Republican control of it, the fact that both Rubio and Cruz are on the record for being willing to fight tooth and nail to keep it in place and it’s a political season. It’s possible after the November election, but I don’t see anything moving.

I understand that there's a big faction of the Republican Party that’s on board with it, however, I just don’t see it. Because the Chamber of Commerce faction, farm states, etc. -- I don’t think they’re going to go against two presidential candidates who feel so strongly about this.

The Cuban revolutionary generation defined itself largely in opposition to the United States. Do you think members of the old guard are worried about the day the embargo is lifted and relations become truly normal?

I think we have the same problem on the other side. You have históricos [politicians of an older generation] on both sides who don’t want to lift it.

And I would wonder if Fidel [Castro] -- and I don’t think Fidel has all the marbles he once had -- truly wants it lifted. Because remember once the embargo is lifted, it’s all the responsibility and culpability of the Cuban government. And as we all know, the embargo is riddled with as many holes as swiss cheese. The U.S., while there’s an embargo is in place, is able to be their number one food exporter. And the Cuban goverment’s been able to shop and buy with any government around the world.

So it’s really kind of an embargo in name only because of all the maneuvers and presidential executive orders that Obama, and previous presidents, have been able to cut into it. It has definitely some power, but at this point it’s really more symbolic.

Definitely some things would improve, but I think that because they still have a bankrupt economy, it speaks to that their problems are inherent to the Cuban economic system -- not to the U.S. embargo at this point in time.

There’s so many loopholes in the U.S. embargo, there’s pretty much nothing they can’t get. If there’s something they want, they can get it through a third party. And that’s been going on from time immemorial. I remember being in Cuba 20 years ago and meeting some businessmen who had an office in Havana for IBM -- and this was when the embargo really was in effect. So you can be sure over the past 20 years the loopholing of the Cuban embargo is thorough and complete. But it carries a huge amount of symbolic value.

The other thing that I’ve written about exhaustively in my books -- Cuba Confidential and Without Fidel -- is that on numerous occasions in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the U.S. made numerous overtures to Cuba, whether it was [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger or [former President Jimmy] Carter, or whoever, to end it all. And at each instance it was Fidel who said, "I’m not ending this." The mythology of the embargo is how effectively it’s worked for Fidel Castro. It’s a wonderful way to deflect the institutional, foundational flaws of Cuba.

What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of Cuban life?

I don’t think most people understand how, if there’s a genetic disposition or stereotype of Cubans or whatever you want to call it -- it’s how entrepreneurial Cubans are. The survival of this country is floating on the entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans to survive in spite of all this.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s a ginned up, very entrepreneurial spirit that is uniquely Cuban. And that’s what I don’t think people understand. Communism on this island was a particularly cruel curse. But on the other hand, that individual spirit of Cubans and their creativity is probably the only reason that the whole thing is still moving.

There still remains this massively oppressive bureaucracy and nothing involving the U.S. embargo is going to change that. Those are institutional changes that Raúl Castro is going to have to muster the courage to do. And he’s going to get flak from the históricos.

In your books, you write about the role that Jeb Bush played in helping to free Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch. Should people still care that the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful did this?

I think it needs to be discussed. He played a huge role. He saw to it that the Justice Department was overruled, that [then-Attorney General] Dick Thornburgh -- and I wrote about this in Without Fidel and other pieces -- that’s a remarkable thing he was able to get his father to overrule the Attorney General. And I interviewed Dick Thornburgh. He was not happy about this. Very unhappy about it. He thought Bosch was big trouble and needed to get out of the country, and was a convicted terrorist. That was the opinion of the attorney general and somehow that got overruled after a lot of back and forth between father and son.

People forget that Jeb Bush was the campaign manager for leana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla) at a very critical time at the peak of power of Miami, Cuba. And that Ileana’s mentors were not just [former head of the Cuban American National Foundation] Jorge Más Canosa, but also Enrique Ros, her father. And her father was one of the militantes. He believed passionately in la lucha [the fight] against the Castros. This was at the top of their agenda -- free Orlando Bosch. And they did. And they couldn’t have done it without the help of Jeb Bush.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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