There was an overseas ceremony recently that should give all Americans cause for pause and reflection, if not an irony fix for the ages.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright formally dedicated a new U.S. consulate building in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The new American consulate reestablishes a diplomatic foothold in the erstwhile Saigon for the first time since 1975. That’s when U.S. diplomats fled the advancing North Vietnamese forces that overran the American-backed South Vietnamese army in the last stage of that tragic American misadventure.
In her prepared remarks, America’s Iron Lady said, “The United States and Vietnam will forever be linked by history. But by continuing to work together to transcend that tragic legacy, we can add to our shared history bright new chapters of hope and mutual prosperity.”
That shared history, of course, includes more than 50,000 dead GIs and another 2,000 service personnel still listed as missing in action a generation later. It even brought down a president.
Meanwhile in Washington, House and Senate negotiators are still trying to wrangle a compromise that would at least permit an easing of the embargo on sales of food and medical supplies to Cuba. Through four decades and nine presidents, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Americans have been banned from selling much of anything to Cuba. To those who have questioned presidential guts in dealing with the South Florida Cuban-American lobby, the Administrations’ responses have been, in effect: “That’s the way it embargoes. We don’t want to be known as the Administration that ‘gave in’ to Castro.”
Because Fidel Castro has refused to die off, the embargo lives on. Its impact, especially in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion, hurts nobody but American business interests and the Cuban people who, like people everywhere, are hardly responsible for the government they’re saddled with.
We’ve never been to war with Cuba, and the island was never a killing field for American soldiers. The embargo is a counterproductive, foreign-policy incongruity that induces global alienation and ridicule — and that’s from our allies.
Yet, inexplicably, a new chapter of “hope and mutual prosperity” applies only to Vietnam, not Cuba. Explained Albright: “It will help us better serve the American business community, which is concentrated here in the south (of Vietnam).” That eclectic business community, it should be noted, even includes the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. Perhaps JWT should pitch the Cuba account.
But back in the states, farm groups and agribusinesses continue to clamor for their piece of “mutual prosperity” and permission to move a glut of grain that has been depressing commodity prices. Such beseeching is belittling when the rationales of humanitarian aid, enlightened self-interest and common sense should be carrying the day.
So, while American officials in Vietnam say they now expect to receive up to 25,000 requests each year for permission to live permanently in the United States, Cuban smugglers continue to traffick in those fleeing from the deprivations ensured by the U.S. embargo.
Isn’t it, after forty years of failed policy, time to “transcend that tragic legacy”?