Erikson, the “absurdly unsuccessful” embargo, the Five and the future


The author of the acclaimed book Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States and the Next Revolution is the new Senior Advisor in the U.S. State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs office.

What—if anything—does Daniel P. Erikson’s appointment last week mean for the future of U.S-Cuban relations—and the fate of the Cuban Five?

While the Miami Herald says Erikson’s duties are “still being defined,” the newspaper adds the former Senior Associate with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington is “likely to play at least some role in carrying out the diplomatic side of the Obama administration’s policies on Cuba.”

The Cuba Wars
The Cuba Wars

Erikson’s Cuba Wars won Foreword Magazine’s 2008 Political Science Book of the Year award and praise from a diverse collection of American critics. The Nation called it “sharp and deeply reported.” Foreign Affairs described it as “an eloquent cry for more realistic, decent responses that help—rather than further punish—the long-suffering Cuban People.” And the Associated Press lauded it as “a complete, insightful and fair-minded look at American policies toward Cuba.”

The question is whether being fair-minded matters when it comes to Cuban-American relations.

The best clues to that question may be in Eriskon’s own writing.

Erikson rightly describes the 50-year U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, for example, as “absurdly unsuccessful,” and pointedly notes the hypocrisy that “tens of millions of [U.S.] dollars have been spent on Radio and TV Marti broadcasts intended to break through the Castro regime’s ‘information blockade,’ but the average American is banned from traveling to the island.”

He pins much of the blame for the logic-clanging dissonance in U.S. policy on the Cuban-American lobby, which—despite its 50-year track record of abysmal failure to topple Fidel Castro, or do much else other than get in the way—still exerts a bizarrely out-of-whack-with-global-reality influence over America’s Cuba policy.

Consider Erikson’s pre-new-job take on two specific cases:

  • In his book, Erikson acknowledges that Cuba dispatched the Cuban Five to Florida “to keep an eye out for threats to the island that emanated from Cuban exiles.” While he is far from sympathetic to their current plight—he declares, without irony, that “they faced the full brunt of the American legal process, which found them guilty on all counts”—he acknowledges the real reason the Five seem “destined to remain behind bars” is the power of the Cuban-American lobby, “especially given the incendiary nature of the case in Miami.”
  • His analysis of the case of Luis Posada Carriles is equally dark. Erikson points out that Posada’s 2005 return to the United States “created a fiasco for the Bush administration.” But he says it ultimately decided to treat the acknowledged terrorist with prosecutorial “kid gloves and face the charge of hypocrisy” rather than put him on trial “and risk embarrassing revelations and an explosion of outrage in Miami.”

Why all this concern with what a bunch of aging, obsessive exiles in Miami think?

Erikson answered that question too. “It is far from clear that the strong Democratic majorities in the 111th Congress will herald much change on Cuba policy,” he concluded shortly after the 2008 elections, “especially since the Cuban-American lobbies that favor the embargo actively gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates during the last election cycle.


Oh yes, that…

Or consider Barak Obama. During the last presidential campaign, Obama sent mixed signals. He expressed a willingness to begin “direct dialogue without pre-conditions” with the Cuban government and promised to support lifting restrictions on family members traveling or sending money to relatives in Cuba. But, in his major campaign speech on Latin American policy—to a well-connected, well-heeled Cuban American audience, it should be noted—he insisted he would maintain that same “absurdly unsuccessful” embargo.

Given that Obama became “the first presidential candidate to win [Florida] since the end of the Cold War while campaigning on a platform that moved, even gingerly, in the direction of greater engagement with Cuba,” and that his eventual Electoral College margin of victory was so significant he didn’t need Florida’s usually critical 27 electoral votes,” you might think Obama could finally change all that.

Erikson did. He argued in The Cuba Wars that Obama “had tremendous political scope of action to break through the “traditional animosity guiding U.S. relations with Cuba. The question,” he added sagely, “was whether he would choose to use it.”

So far, the verdict is decidedly mixed. Obama has eased some family travel restrictions and there are hopes  people-to-people openings will continue to expand. But the administration has shown no signs—publicly at least—that it is ready top lift the useless trade embargo or negotiate a deal to free the Cuban Five.

Still, IPS, the Inter-Press Service, reported this week on rumours in Cuba that  the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, “may be mediating” negotiations to trade the Five for Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor being held in Havana on allegations he entered the country illegally to distribute telecommunicatoons equipment to dissidents. That, coupled with Fidel Castro’s recent public musings that the Five would be freed by the end of the year, has prompted renewed hope about the case.

But it is still faint. That’s because there is another presidential election looming, which will almost certainly be a closer contest than in 2008 , which means Florida’s anti-Castro warriors may matter more this time.

Which is why even the appointment of a moderate like Erikson seems unlikely to dramatically alter the stale state of Cuban-American relations.

That may not make foreign policy—or even common—sense but, as Daniel P. Erikson has demonstrated, when it comes to Cuba making sense doesn’t matter much at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *