In the Federalist, James Madison looked to create a political system that would protect the national interest from the evils of faction. He called for a large republic that would generate countless factional interests that would counter one another, generate compromise and, he hoped, wise policy.
It remains a remarkable vision of politics and constitutionalism. But, sometimes even the most brilliant vision manifests its imperfections.
2019 marks the 60th anniversary of such an imperfection: the ongoing American embargo (or, depending on your point of view, “blockade”) of Cuba. Regardless of what you call it, the policy has been a miserable failure.
Fidel Castro outlasted numerous American presidents. Those who could leave Cuba have done so and, as a result, the embargo afflicts those who either could not leave or who made the mistake of being born into Cuba after 1960.
The embargo made sense in terms of Cold War foreign policy. It forced the Soviet Union to expend resources to support Fidel Castro in hopes of making him a thorn in the side of the USA. But, the Soviet Union fell in 1989. Why do we maintain the blockade? Who benefits?
The simple answer lies in the nature of those factions that preoccupied Madison. Small, powerful groups manage to hijack foreign or domestic policy because they are able to pressure a few members of Congress.
In the absence of an opposing force, they succeed. In the case of Cuba, the powerful force is the Cuba lobby. It wields enough power in Florida and New Jersey to control races for the Senate and several congressional districts.
It is so powerful that it brought Donald Trump and Marco Rubio together to celebrate the reversal of several Obama administration reforms that opened relations between the countries. Rubio said he was “confident that President Trump will treat Cuba like the dictatorship it is and that our policy going forward will reflect the fact that it is not in the national interest of the United States for us to be doing business with the Cuban military.”
Seriously? It’s OK to maintain relations with all sorts of other countries, but we’ve decided that Cuba’s an unsavory dictatorship? Cuba scores a paltry 17 out of 100 on Freedom House’s measure of freedom in the world. It’s not a flourishing democracy.
But, by comparison, we manage to maintain relations with the likes of China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom rank right down there with Cuba in terms of freedom.
No doubt the embargo’s origins lie in legitimate grievances. Fidel Castro’s rise altered Cuba. But the Cuba he changed was a cruel and unjust society. Yes, it was the Cuba of Ricky Ricardo, the Tropicana, and romance.
It was also the Cuba of an oppressive dictatorship overseen by Fulgencio Batista and supported by American organized crime.
The many Cubans who supported Castro had not benefited from the tourism, casinos, bordellos, glamour, and romance that characterized the island. Instead, these interests — many with American support or ownership — exploited a people that the U.S. had pretended to liberate from Spain in 1898.
Yet, as Spanish control waned in the late 19th century and after the U.S. essentially took possession of the island in 1898, American corporate giants like United Fruit continued to run the island like a feudal colony.
So, the United States bases its blockade on a vision of Cuba frozen in the late 1950s when we feared the global spread of communism. In a series of unfortunate and shortsighted maneuvers, we found ourselves blockading an island the size of Ohio.
President Eisenhower demanded that Cuba not refine Soviet oil. Castro refused. Eisenhower cut off sugar purchases.
Castro nationalized U.S. industrial possessions, seized property, and ran to the arms of the Soviet Union.
The blockade continues because it has the support of the Cuba lobby in the U.S. But what interest, exactly, does it serve? There is no profit; but there is unquestionable loss. While the U.S. stays away, China is now deepening the port of Santiago and expanding its port facilities. The cost of assuaging 60-year-old anger is a loss of economic opportunity for American business and an unethical, unjust policy that punishes the many helpless and innocent residents of Cuba.
The realities of American politics make it unlikely that the blockade will be lifted any time soon.
There is no denying the influence of a small, insular yet powerful lobby that manifests all the evils that James Madison attributed to factions during our Founding era.
It was his hope that the political system he created would prevent minority factions from sacrificing the national interest. Alas, our policy toward Cuba demonstrates that even Madison’s brilliance can fail.
Mark Rush is Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law and director of the Center for International Education at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Contact him at RushM@wlu.edu.
The United States bases its blockade on a vision of Cuba frozen in the late 1950s when we feared the global spread of communism.