The weakest link in the trade-embargo chain


In late January, Cuba announced it had decided to freeze funds linked to the terrorist groups al Qaida and the Taliban. Signed by President Raúl Castro, the decree stressed that the sanctions demonstrated Cuba's “commitment in the fight against money laundering, financing terrorism and the proliferation of weapons.”

A few days later, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States met in Havana. Among the documents generated at the meeting, there is one labeled “Special Declaration to Support the Fight Against Terrorism in All its Forms and Manifestations,” which “rejects the inclusion of Cuba in the so-called list of States Sponsoring International Terrorism of the U.S. State Department.”

In early February, the Atlantic Council — a think tank that promotes “constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs” — released the results of a poll on U.S.-Cuba policy conducted among randomly selected U.S. adults. The survey, which concludes that a majority of Americans would like to normalize relations with Cuba, included a question about whether or not Cuba “belongs on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.”

Just a few days later, and for the second time in less than three months, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. D.C., announced that it will suspend all consular services, a decision that will prevent thousands of Cuban Americans and other Americans from traveling to the island.

On both occasions, the Cuban representatives claimed they were forced to take this dramatic step because they cannot find a U.S. bank to handle their accounts. On both occasions, the Cubans argued that their accounts are problematic for U.S. banks because Cuba is on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.

By now the reader must have recognized a pattern: the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (the SST List.) Those of us who follow Cuban affairs are used to the regime’s tirades against the U.S. trade embargo. The emphasis on the SST List, however, is fairly new in the regime’s saturation campaign against U.S. policy. Considering that Cuba has been on the list since 1982, what explains this offensive right now? Even more interesting, Havana’s offensive coincides with a growing interest in the SST List by liberal think tanks such as the Atlantic Council and others. Is this a coincidence?

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not accusing the Atlantic Council of being in cahoots with Havana to change current U.S. policy. Rather, I think Havana is copying the strategies of the U.S. anti-embargo lobby and timing its own campaign to coincide with theirs so as to create momentum. This is not difficult to believe, considering how transparent the political debate is in this country, and the proficiency of Cuban intelligence in recruiting romantic American academics.

Even though the embargo was codified into law by the Helms-Burton Act and can only be lifted by Congress, the president has the prerogative to tweak the policy through executive orders. But the SST List, which mandates a number of sanctions against included countries, constitutes a legal obstacle to any further relaxation of policy.

The U.S. anti-embargo lobby has thus identified the SST List as the weakest link in the chain of U.S.-Cuba policy. Its explicit goal is to have the president use his executive power to remove Cuba from the SST List immediately after this year’s November elections, and then make other “adjustments” to the Cuba policy before the end of President Obama’s second term.

There is no question that in many ways the interests of the U.S. anti-embargo lobby and those of the Cuban regime overlap to a significant degree. Taking Cuba off the SST List will open the door for the White House to lift the travel ban. Flooding Cuba with millions of naïve American tourists is probably No. 1 on the regime’s Top 10 list of “Things We Need Most to Stay in Power Indefinitely.”

My friends in the anti-embargo lobby overestimate the influence of American tourists, and forget there is not a single case in contemporary history where a totalitarian regime was toppled, even weakened, by foreign tourists.

Cuba may have a lower profile on jihadist terrorism than others on the SST List, but if the regime wants its name removed, it needs to do a lot more than just announce financial sanctions against al Qaida. Releasing Alan Gross and delivering fugitive Joanne Chesimard to U.S. justice would be a good start.

Sebastian A. Arcos is associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

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