Dan Simpson / Let’s try getting along with Cuba

It’s time to end the decades of economic sanctions and animosity

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Among dumb U.S. foreign policies, our approach to Cuba is probably the dumbest, one prevailing in its breathtaking stupidity through 11 presidencies.

Other whoppers include, of course, Africa in general, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, recently Russia, and — moving up — Afghanistan. I define “dumb” in this context as policies not in the best interests of the United States and ones that reflect profound misunderstanding of the countries or regions on the receiving end.

Each case is different. There is no one villain of the piece. But the policies are defective, they have cost Americans money and, in some cases, they have cost America lives.

Cuba is stunning. Basically, America’s relations with Cuba, an island nation of 11 million, 40 minutes from the United States by air, did not need to be bad.

Fidel Castro’s coming to power there in 1959 was messy for the United States, which was closely entangled with the Cuba of the Fulgencio Batista era. There were business, political and criminal links. American businessmen and bankers lost money as Mr. Castro attempted to remake — reform — Cuba. Our resistance to his attempted changes opened the door to the Soviet Union, thus sealing Cuba’s fate for the next 30 years, until the USSR rolled a seven in 1990.

American governments since, Democratic and Republican, let themselves be driven — perhaps even to this day — by the money and votes of the Cuban exile community in Florida. When Richard Nixon was in the White House, his close friend Bebe Rebozo called the shots. Now, the presence of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is from a Cuban exile family, may be driving the Washington political-financial cabal away from serious attempts to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.

Let’s try a different scenario, starting in 1959, when Mr. Castro took power. The United States doesn’t like him much but accepts that different things happen in places south of the border, that people are different there, that they proceed from a history different from ours. There was Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti. He ruled on the basis of Tonton Macoute brutality and witchcraft. There was Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. There was Juan Domingo Peron in Argentina. He ruled on the basis of glamour and stunning financial profligacy that prevails to this day.

So maybe we don’t like Fidel Castro much, but we retain close links with Cuba, we don’t try to kill or overthrow Mr. Castro, and we use our ties — including the usual type of American aid — to see that the Soviets do not cash in on Mr. Castro’s professed common ideology to get their large foot in the door. No Bay of Pigs. No Cuban missile crisis. No U.S. economic sanctions that cost American businesspersons and bankers easily as much as they penalized Cubans. No flood of people out of Cuba to the United States because its economy had been trashed, including by us.

Would anyone like to argue that by 2014, or an awful lot sooner, Cuba would have morphed into a state with which the United States would have easy, if not perfect, relations? Fidel Castro stepped down anyway in 2008. His brother Raul is now 83 and will complete his second and final term in 2018. Would they even have lasted this long if Washington had somehow been diverted from a policy that consisted almost entirely of waiting for the Castros to die?

Other Latin Americans think U.S.-Cuban policy is evidence of American madness. Most of them have no interest in running their countries the way the Castros have run Cuba and have supported the U.S. approach to Cuba only to the degree that’s been necessary to cadge favors and money from Washington.

If the other Latin American countries can tolerate an outlier like Cuba in their midst without going into a frenzy, why does it bother us so much? Does the money and do the votes of the Cuban exiles in America count for so much in our electoral campaigns that 11 straight administrations have let them call the shots in U.S. policy toward Cuba?

So, where are we now? There had been some thought that Barack Obama would have started a new page in relations with both Iran and Cuba. He could have, at the beginning of his first term, scheduled quick visits to both countries, breaking the ice in January 2009. He didn’t. Then he wanted to be reelected in 2012. So he didn’t, again. What about now?

The Cuban chief of mission to the United States, Jose Cabanas, paid a visit to Pittsburgh last week. He didn’t convince me of much but he did make me think long and hard again about U.S.-Cuban policy, which is still breathtakingly stupid. I confess to thinking, with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching staff showing weakness, that salvation even there might lie in Cuba.

Seriously, Mr. Cabanas claims that the Obama administration is showing new signs of wanting to launch constructive discussions with Cuba on subjects of mutual practical interest. These include air transport, the environment, migration and postal traffic. American businesspersons are licking their chops as they look at Cuban offshore drilling, port improvements, a new tax code and new investment regulations.

The question then may become, will the business element in the Republican Party manage to throttle the flat-earth Tea Party gang and the Cuban exiles to allow constructive changes in U.S. policy?

I am not optimistic, even though one does see Mr. Obama showing more initiative by using his executive authority. He could, for example, waive some restrictions on U.S.-Cuban relations as in the national interest. The Cubans think the United States has “committed mistakes” against their country and should admit them. I pointed out to Mr. Cabanas during his visit that American governments never admit their mistakes and it is unrealistic to expect them to.

In the case of improving U.S.-Cuban relations, both sides know quite well what needs to be done, just as the ingredients of a peace accord for Israel and Palestine in the Middle East are well known. Mr. Obama could decide to make resolving the Cuba snarl part of his legacy. It makes all kinds of sense. He just has to decide to do it.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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