Hagel’s Common Sense on Cuba

Foes of Chuck Hagel have found another reason to oppose his nomination for secretary of defense: he supported ending the 50-year old embargo on Cuba. Hagel also called the idea that the government in Havana constitutes a terrorist threat to the United States “goofy”, referring to Fidel Castro as a “toothless old dinosaur.” Supposedly, this proves he’s weak and won’t stand up to world dictators when vital U.S. interests are at stake. 

In reality, Hagel belongs to a growing group of conservatives who have come to realize the failure of U.S. policy towards Cuba. This group includes former senator Richard Lugar, who until recently was the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona. Even Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP’s former VP candidate, voted against the embargo the last time it came to a vote in the House in 2005. 

You don’t need to think hard to understand why the embargo and travel ban on Cuba have failed: the Castro brothers are still in power in Havana. Five decades of economic sanctions—the most stringent Washington has imposed on any country—have failed to bring about a democratic transformation of Cuba. Moreover, the embargo has served as a scapegoat to the regime.

Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, a leading dissident in Cuba, has aptly summed up that strategy: “[Castro] wants to continue exaggerating the image of the external enemy which has been vital for the Cuban Government during decades, an external enemy which can be blamed for the failure of the totalitarian model implanted here.” Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez has called the embargo “the regime’s excuse for all its failures” and pointed out that its existence has undermined the work of dissidents on the island. 

Proponents of the embargo (who are now opposing Hagel’s nomination) inadvertently accept this reality. Our friend Frank Calzón, at the Center for a Free Cuba, mentions in the Washington Post several instances when Havana rebutted Washington’s outreach efforts: “Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action.” Why? Perhaps because the Castro regime fears that an end to the embargo and travel ban could weaken its grip on power? 

Ironically, those who argue that national security concerns are reasons to oppose changing U.S. policy towards Cuba ignore that the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office points out that enforcing the embargo and travel ban diverts limited resources from homeland security that could be used to keep terrorists and criminals out of the United States. The GAO report warned that arrival inspections from Cuba intended to enforce the embargo are “straining Customs and Border Patrol’s capacity to inspect other travelers according to its mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens out of the country.”     

It would be naïve to think that ending the embargo will somehow transform Cuba into a democratic society. As long as the Castros are in change, that won’t happen. But it’s equally naïve to believe that there are great benefits and no significant downsides to the current policy. Chuck Hagel doesn’t have a Cuba problem. Just the opposite. He has shown common sense in ending one of Washington’s most anachronistic foreign policies.