Cuban Embargo: Bad Policy, Good Debate

Call it bad policy, good debate.

That pretty much sums up the recent debate — hosted by the law firm of Trenam Kemker — on the contentious issue of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba — as in should it be lifted? Prominent, Havana-born, Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez said, among many other things, “No.” Tampa native Albert Fox, founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy and point man for ex-Mayor Dick Greco’s controversial trip to Havana last year, disagreed. Big time.

For those keeping score, Fernandez won — even though Fox had the better case.

A lot of folks — and not just pundits and United Nations’ reps — would probably agree that America’s embargo policy is a Cold War relic that is counterproductive on lots of levels, as well as mean-spirited, hypocritical and, well, dumb.

Fernandez, the glib lawyer, was the better advocate. He speaks well — often with acerbic wit and effective passion. He marshals a pretty decent case for a pretty sorry policy.

He cannily played the terrorist card and insisted that Cuba has supported all kinds of terrorism. Thus, trading with Castro is a syllogistic affront to our troops in Iraq. He reminded the audience of some 300 that two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, Castro was in Tehran saying, “Iran and Cuba will bring America to its knees.”

In answer to the question of what would constitute the “right time” to normalize trade with Cuba, Fernandez said contemplating such a scenario amounted to “putting the cart in front of the horse.”

“Before we trade, we need to establish change in Cuba,” stressed Fernandez. Castro, he underscored, has to “make some progress on the road” to having a free market economy and dealing properly with dissidents. “Otherwise, there’s no dealing with Fidel Castro.” Moreover, added Fernandez, “over the last 44 years there have been multiple overtures to Fidel Castro,” all of which he has managed to resist. “When he’s finally gone,” opined Fernandez, “people will really know — like with Stalin and Hitler — how many he has executed. The level of repression in Cuba is so high — that’s why he doesn’t have to execute as many any more. I say we act righteously.”

But there’s nothing righteous — or right — about embargo-busting, reiterated Fernandez. Besides, Cuba is basically bankrupt and can’t pay for much of anything anyhow.

The more pertinent issue, Fernandez pointedly noted, is the travel ban. Lifting that, he estimated, could be worth as much as “$15-16 billion from the U.S.” per year. Such a staggering figure would dwarf the old Soviet subsidy.

As for defusing the humanitarian issues, he impugned the motives of “carpetbaggers,” “apologists for the regime,” those who would “trade with the devil” and worse. To wit: those “who take an old wheelchair to Cuba in a million-dollar yacht and then party with 15-year-old girls at Marina Hemingway.”

The low-key — and sometimes microphone-challenged — Fox saw the humanitarian side of humanitarian aid and disputed Cuban terrorism links. He said the most ardent anti-Castro motivations derived much more from “former Batista-ites’ greed” than outrage at dissident treatment.

He rhetorically asked who was “impacted most” by the embargo? His answer: “The people of Cuba, the people of Tampa.”

Fox said U.S. policy should be to “engage the Cuban government as it is — not as we wish it to be.” There’s ample precedent, he said, such as Saudi Arabia, which is hardly a beacon of democracy. In fact, were Cuba to immediately announce that it had discovered major oil deposits off its shores, theorized Fox, “the embargo would be over tomorrow.

“It’s for the people of Cuba to decide what their government is,” emphasized Fox. “It shouldn’t be dictated from Miami

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