The Ongoing Illogic of US Policy Towards Cuba

The Obama-Castro handshake at Mandela's funeral has caused a bit of an uproar.

As expected, the Obama-Castro handshake at Mandela’s funeral has caused a bit of an uproar.   For example, the following quote has been making the rounds:

“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is known for her opposition to the Castro government, told Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that, a handshake notwithstanding, the US policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened.”

Rhetoric of this nature is striking in a variety of ways.  There is, of course, the obvious observation that presidents of the United States have, over the years, shaken hands with any number of unpleasant folks (often of dictators who were fast friends of the US).  As such, the outrage in these situations always rings hollow in the context of reality.  Second, and more significantly, there can be no doubt that US policy towards Cuba in the post-Cold War era has helped forestall liberalization in that country.  First, does anyone actually think that Cuba would be in the same condition if US business interests had been allowed to freely invest in the island for the last two-plus decades?*  Second, the regime has had a ready excuse for any failures in its policies:  the US.  As such, hardliners like Representative Ros-Lehtinen are helping perpetuate what they vehemently despise.

Source for the quote, the BBC:  White House says Obama-Castro handshake ‘not planned’ (headline reaction:  a handshake at a funeral not planned?  Shocking!).

*Yes, the Cold War has been over for almost a quarter century.  Time to let it go.

FILED UNDER: Latin America, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. mantis says:

    I like how McCain Godwinned it immediately. They are, to borrow their phrase, stuck on stupid.

  2. Mikey says:

    First, does anyone actually think that Cuba would be in the same condition if US business interests had been allowed to freely invest in the island for the last two-plus decades?

    The flip side of that question is “to what extent would Cuba have allowed such investment?” Would the Cuban government have welcomed it as a much-needed economic boost, or shunned it in fear of a return to the “capitalist exploitation” of the Batista era?

    They have welcomed tourism in the last 20 years, and it’s now their primary source of income, surpassing even sugar exports. So perhaps they’d have been equally welcoming of US investment.

    Of course, the embargo is stupid and outdated at this point, so we should just drop it and see what develops. I just don’t know how the Cuban government would react if it actually happened.

  3. rudderpedals says:

    Cuba sanctions are Ros-Lehtinin’s entire raison d’etre (along with the rest of the Miami-Dade Batista refugee contingent) regardless of whether or not the Cuba disconnect is bad for the USA.. No sanctions, no need for R-L.

  4. @Mikey: Actually, the Cubans were quite interested in expanded trade with the US in the mid-2000s until the movement on that front got caught up in the War on Terror. This was actually a fairly big deal in Alabama because of the poultry industry and the Port of Mobile is ideal for shipments to Havana.

    Beyond that, the Cubans do business with other countries, and there is no reason to assume that they would not do business with the US. Consider the effects of unfettered tourism from the US, had it been allowed to happen.

  5. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Thanks for the info. I just read Cuba is building an export processing zone at the port of Mariel, with about $900 million in Brazilian investment, that will be managed by a Singaporean firm.

    I think it would be safe to assume if the embargo were lifted there would be a lot of manufacturing going on in Cuba for export to the U. S. and we’d be their largest trading partner.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Where were the right wing rage merchants when Reagan shook hands with Mobutu Sese Seko?

  7. gVOR08 says:

    Our policy goal was to remove Fidel Castro from power. He’s resigned due to old age and turned power over to his brother after becoming, IIRC, the longest serving head of state in the world. But abject failure is no reason to rethink the policy. Amazing. As John Cole asked yesterday wrt/ the reaction to this handshake, “How did we become a superpower?”

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Why do we use high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in the United States? Because sugar is more expensive here than almost anywhere else in the world.

    Why is sugar more expensive here than anywhere else in the world? Because of our trade embargo against Cuba.

    Not to mention the environmental impact of our subsidies to the domestic cane sugar industry.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    I lived on Miami Beach at the end of last century…so I am not new to this discussion.
    It’s pretty obvious that this decades old policy never worked, ain’t working, and ain’t never goin’ to work. And…oh…the money to be made from relations with Cuba.
    But what always amused me…was pu$$ies like Ros-Lehtinen…living the good life in S. Florida…and waiting for someone else to come along and free their homeland for them. Seriously…talk about lack of conviction and cowardly lions.
    So then Ted Cruz gets up and walks out of Castro’s speech at the Mandela Memorial…what a friggin’ child. But he is the Republican heir apparent. So it makes sense.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    I see that the original embargo was put into force in Oct 1960 and extended two years later. It must be graded a total failure except for the effects that Mr Schuler points out and the immiseration of the Cuban people.

    It’s a peculiar feature of our democracy that strong and united groups can control our foreign policy; the Irish bent our policy so much in an anti-British direction that the Royal Navy considered the US to be a ‘most likely enemy’ until the German naval build-up of the very early 20th century.

  11. walt moffett says:

    Kinda interesting that the Cuban Communist Party news site Granma makes slight reference to the occasion, which may mean nothing or something.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    @walt moffett:

    Kinda interesting that the Cuban Communist Party news site Granma makes slight reference to the occasion, which may mean nothing or something.

    I’m sure that they’re reading accounts of American conservative “outrage” over this and collecting on wagers – because most of them probably took the “over” on whether or not Obama would bait conservatives by doing just this.

  13. de stijl says:

    Obama shook someone’s hand. It’s not like he sold them weapons to fund an illegal proxy war or anything. Lighten up!

    (It puzzles me to this day how Reagan became the Republican saint after the Iran-Contra high treason, but hey, Republicans always confound me.)

  14. Tyrell says:

    Well, here are some sure fire solutions to changing the current situation in Cuba. The solution is to change the mindset. Send in Trump to buy properties and develop them. Send Vince McMahon to overhaul their tv programs. Put you tube on all school computers. Make sure that WalMart, McDonalds, Starbucks, American Eagle, Taco Bell/KFC, AMC, Discovery, Nick, and Costco are in.
    Send in Department of Education people to “reform ” their school system using “Common Core”.
    In six months it will be like any state in the US.

  15. Mikey says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Why is sugar more expensive here than anywhere else in the world? Because of our trade embargo against Cuba.

    I thought it was because of the import quotas and tariffs Congress has imposed in response to pressure from the American sugar industry.

    Those are also stupid, of course, just a different stupid.

  16. walt moffett says:


    Could be or could be Cuba’s conservatives are engaging in a derp fest of their own with police keeping score. Whether or not the average Cuban is aware or even cares is another story.

  17. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Let’s see, Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is in constant turmoil, with Islamic militants a real threat to the government, hence to us as well. Yet it’s Cuba that is the real threat to our security? To hear the professional squawkers, you’d think the 9/11 terrorists all came from Castro’s paradise.