Change Our Cuba Policy

PARIS — Paris. -- Only a truly innocent man could say, as President Bill Clinton said on Aug. 19, that all the United States wants for Cuba is that it be swept up in the hemispheric wave of "democracy and freedom."

Mr. Clinton surely wishes Cubans well, but history contradicts him. The historical American relationship to the Cuban nation has been anything but a struggle for Cuba's liberation. The events of recent days are Cuba's revenge for that history.


Fidel Castro has a victory. He has compelled Mr. Clinton to reverse an American policy that, since the Cuban Refugee Act of 1966, gave automatic U.S. entry to anyone leaving Cuba. Mr. Clinton is sending refugees picked up at sea to Guantanamo, the U.S. naval base in Cuba, and putting those who reach the U.S. into camps.

This is a comprehensible response to the anxiety of Floridians and others over the new and deliberately provoked refugee flow, but it is nonetheless a U.S. humiliation.


It is the latest event in America's 35-year obsession with Fidel Castro that produced the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 and the collaboration of the U.S. government with organized crime in a series of increasingly grotesque projects for Fidel Castro's murder.

Defenders of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations would claim the Cold War and Fidel Castro's alliance with Russia as justification for those actions. But that does not explain the emotional intensity in this struggle between the most powerful state in the world and one of the weakest.

That belongs to the realm of political pathology. The practical effect of American policy in the 1960s was to make Fidel Castro a figure of world consequence and Cuba a power in Latin America and Africa.

No American administration since John Kennedy's has possessed the political courage to call this nonsense off.

When Bill Clinton was asked at his Aug. 19 news conference why the American embargo on Cuban trade -- which has made life miserable for ordinary Cubans without other evident effect -- should be maintained while he and his predecessors have traded with China and a series of other regimes with human rights records worse than Cuba's, his answer was the lame "I think the circumstances are different."

Indeed they are. Elements in both Cuba and the United States repeatedly tried during the early 19th century to bring Cuba into the U.S. as a slave state. Presidents Polk and Buchanan tried to purchase Cuba (as Grant and McKinley tried later). Under President Franklin Pierce, when a reforming Spanish captain-general called for a ban on slavery in Cuba, there was a plan to seize the island.

The U.S. public and government supported later Cuban uprisings against Spain, and in 1898 the U.S. invaded Cuba to free it. The result was Cuba's attachment to a new empire, that of the United States.

The operative change in the American conscience is best seen in William McKinley, who had said in his 1897 inaugural address that "we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression." A year later, finding the U.S. in possession of Spain's former Caribbean and Pacific possessions, by his own account he fell to his knees and, in the early hours of the morning, heard the voice of God instructing him to annex the Philippines. Puerto Rico, Wake Island and Hawaii followed.


Cuba was not annexed, since the justification for the Spanish-American war had been Cuban independence. When a republic was at last proclaimed, in 1902, ending U.S. military occupation, Cuba's constitution incorporated the notorious Platt Amendment giving the U.S. a permanent right to intervene and awarding it the extraterritorial naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

The Cubans rebelled against this arrangement and the United States reoccupied the island between 1906 and 1909. American troops went back again in 1912, when black Cubans rose up against racial discrimination. The Platt Amendment was finally revoked under the Roosevelt administration in 1934, but by that time Cuba was under the corrupt control of the first of the two despots who ruled it between 1928 and 1959. The second of these, Sergeant -- subsequently General -- Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown by Fidel Castro.

If democracy is indeed sweeping the western hemisphere, as Mr. Clinton says, part of its task must be to transform the inherited U.S. attitude toward Cuba. Economic boycott by the Clinton administration, with naval blockade perhaps to come, is a direct continuation of the U.S. policy of Cuban intervention that began when the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana harbor in February 1898.

One would think it time for a change. Mr. Clinton claims that democracy is sweeping the Caribbean. In Haiti? In the Dominican Republic? Who will follow Fidel Castro? Will the future really bring Havana something better than the squalid coincidence of Cuban and U.S. commercial and criminal interests that prevailed before 1959? A Cuban song of the 1950s lamented, "The roads of my Cuba never lead where they should."

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.