Finishing Off Fidel. . . A More Acceptable Alternative to Military Intervention. . .

When Pope John Paul II set foot on Cuban soil on January 21, 1998, he recalled that the island, which Christopher Columbus had once called “the most beautiful human eyes have seen,” was a land “where the cross of Christ was raised 500 years ago.” The pope’s simple statement of historical fact seemed to fly in the face of those who were beginning to fear that Castro and his regime, a mere four decades old, would remain for some time to come. And no one would have thought that a communist state that once declared itself “atheist” would approve an outdoor Catholic mass celebrated by—of all people—the pope himself, but there it was on the network news, for all the world to see. Indeed, Cuba seemed to be opening up, Castro softening—change seemed inevitable.

There was, perhaps, no better time for the pope to reiterate his long-standing opposition to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and, further, economic embargoes in general. About them, John Paul has said that “economic embargoes are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy” and that “the weak and innocent cannot pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible.”

Yet the debate over U.S. sanctions against Cuba continues, even within Catholic circles. Are economic sanctions a legitimate expression of U.S. solidarity with the Cubans who suffer under Castro’s regime? Will a continuing program of economic and political pressure bring Cuba—stripped of the Soviet Union’s support—to the point of collapse? Or have Castro and his regime simply passed on the sanction’s deleterious effects to the people?

Crisis has brought together two voices—pro and con—to explore the justice of the Cuban embargo: Bishop Thomas Wenski, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami and a man with first-hand knowledge of Cuba’s poverty, and U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an outspoken supporter of the embargo who represents thousands of Cuban exiles in southern Florida’s 18th congressional district.

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Arguing that U.S. policy toward Cuba is immoral, illegal, and ineffective, proponents of engagement with pariah states like Cuba are pressing for a change in policy toward rapprochement with the ruthless Cuban dictator and an end to the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Helms-Burton Law) and the economic embargo.

The arguments raised by these proponents of engagement are flawed. They ignore theoretical and philosophical tenets, fail to address precedent, and provide a very limited analysis of the goals and true impact of sanctions.

Peaceful, Silent Tool

Those who would soften the United States’ stance—especially by lifting the embargo—seem to have forgotten that these and similar strategies have been used to good effect since the inception of the republic. As early as the mid-1760s, the American colonists used economic pressures to redress wrongs. To protest the taxes imposed by the British crown under the Stamp and Townsend acts, the colonists began a nine-year boycott of British goods that culminated in the Boston Tea Party. Since then, the role of economic sanctions has evolved to protest, condemn, and correct injustices at all levels.

During this century, in the late 1940s, a punitive economic strategy was credited with forcing the Netherlands to withdraw from Indonesia. Sanctions have also been used to great effect against Libyan dictator Muammar Quadaffi and the Iranian regime for supporting terrorist groups and for engaging in the development of weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions against South Africa forced the business establishment and the government in that country to reject apartheid and provide full equality for all citizens. The Reagan administration’s restriction of the Soviet Union’s access to international funding and other economic pressures helped to weaken the communist leadership, fomented change, and is credited today as one of the major contributing factors in the fall of the Soviet communist bloc. The United States also assumed the leadership on sanctions to restore democracy to Haiti and to curtail the massacres in the former Yugoslavia.

Throughout, the United States has been cognizant of the fact that attaching an economic cost to offensive behavior acts as a disincentive and can directly correct a problem by limiting the target government’s capacity to engage in such practices, and that sanctions implicitly express commitment to certain norms of international conduct, human rights, and nonaggression. They reinforce these standards by punishing those who violate them. Sanctions also offer a more acceptable alternative to military intervention. As Woodrow Wilson once said, sanctions are “an economic, peaceful, silent, and deadly tool.” They can serve as powerful deterrents to aggression, can help reverse hostile action, and can prevent the destruction of society. This is the reality that prefaced and substantiates the trade embargo as a foreign policy instrument.

Engaging the Enemy?

Some contend that a policy of “engagement” is more successful than economic isolation in bringing about positive change in pariah states. But for engagement to work, there must be openness that allows benefits to flow broadly to the general population. This is not the case in Castro’s Cuba. A policy of engagement ignores the fact that the Cuban people are still denied their fundamental rights as human beings. They are denied the right not to be subjected to cruel or degrading punishment, the right to personal liberty, and the right to a fair trial. The Cuban people are denied freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association, and freedom of movement. Cubans are denied control over their own labor. They are denied the right to assembly and the right to equal protection under the law.

This brutal denial of human rights intensified last month when the Castro dictatorship approved a new draconian law that imposes prison sentences of up to 20 years on individuals on the island who engage in what the regime calls “counterrevolutionary activity.” The first to test this law were four brave dissidents: Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz Roque, Rene Gomez Manzano, and Felix Bonne, author of the document, La Patria Es De Todos (The Homeland Belongs to All), which criticizes the communist tyranny that has turned Cuba into a police state. These four freedom fighters spent almost 600 days in jail before having trumped-up charges of sedition leveled against them. In Cuba’s kangaroo-court system, all four were found guilty, with Roca sentenced to five years and the others to three and a half.

St. Augustine states in City of God that a war is justified “only by the injustice of an aggressor, and that injustice ought to be a source of grief to any good man, because it is human injustice.” The offense must be actual, committed with intention to do harm, unprovoked, and of substantial importance that renders it absolutely necessary to use the appropriate means to correct the evil. St. Thomas Aquinas also claims that violations of the laws of nature and of the rights endowed by God to all peoples may also be injustices that would require immediate redress.

In Cuba, the Castro regime has not only denounced the existence of God and blasphemed, it has also violated the most fundamental right of all: the right to life. Throughout the four decades that the Castro regime has been in power, thousands of innocent Cubans have been sent before execution squads, thousands have languished in jails for their political and religious beliefs, and thousands have perished in the waters of the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean fleeing the Cuban gulag. But do the U.S. Congress and the president have the authority to engage in a just war? Augustine and Aquinas demonstrate that, because these American leaders have been freely and fairly elected by the people of the United States (unlike Castro), they have such authority.

The United States has sought no material rewards for its policy toward Cuba. It acts from its conviction that the course it has chosen is just and fulfills an obligation that all human beings have to each other to help protect and defend basic human rights. The Libertad Act abides by the responsibility we all have under God to do what is right.

U.S. policy toward the Castro regime satisfies the three main criteria of the just-war doctrine: (1) that a just cause is required; (2) that the one who wages the war must have a legitimate authority to do so; and (3) that a right intention or inward disposition must exist on the part of those waging war.

The motivation for the Libertad Act is to bring freedom to the Cuban people and help them regain the rights endowed to them by God and taken away by Castro. The objective is to isolate the root of all evil in Cuba—and provide external support to the people, while faith gives them the inner strength to force a change in Cuba and a transition to democracy on the island.

Curtailing Tyrants

The U.S. trade embargo against Castro has been effective, in one sense, as an expression of solidarity for the Cuban people. It shows our indignation over the Castro regime’s oppression of the Cuban population and its unacceptable support of violence and terrorism across the globe.

The critical question is whether it has met the primary goals of (a) isolating the regime and (b) promoting and strengthening democratic forces within the island to bring about a transition to a democratically elected government.

In spite of the Clinton administration’s reluctance to fully implement the Libertad Act, it has already had some success in curtailing the flow of investment to Cuba, as individual companies and entities have issued policies stating that they will not enter into any agreements inconsistent with the law and that they will cease to renew any agreements that may conflict with it. Documented reports from official domestic and foreign sources confirm that some foreign companies are using the Helms-Burton Law as an excuse to get out of Cuba.

Solid opposition to—not engagement with—Castro’s regime has achieved progress beyond the economic sphere as well. Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Law authorizes support for democratic and human rights groups in Cuba, and this provision has been used to provide dissidents and activists with the published material on human rights they are seeking. This material includes reports on the status of human rights in Cuba published by independent, non-governmental organizations, individual governments, and the United Nations. There are confirmed reports that copies of the U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights are primary items sought by Cuba’s internal opposition, all of which include references to political freedoms and civil liberties that have led to specific challenges to the judicial system and to the electoral system. In an atmosphere of “engagement,” support for these initiatives could dry up.

It is increasingly clear that the regime’s internal support is waning and that the Cuban people are rebelling against the culture of fear Castro imposes on them. The increase in dissident activity on the island is proof-positive that the call for change will soon be irresistible. Now, more that ever, the Cuban people need our support. Now, more than ever, the United States must let the Cuban people know that they have the support of their powerful neighbor to the north. Engaging Castro does not send this message. Only continuing the economic and political pressure will help the Cuban people achieve their freedom.


  • Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

    Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (born 1952) is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 27th congressional district, serving in Congress since 1989. She is currently the most senior Republican woman in the U.S. House, and was the first Republican woman elected to the House of Representatives from Florida. She was also the first Hispanic woman, and the first Cuban American, to be elected to Congress.

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