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US Embargo on Cuba: The Debate Continues - 2001-07-05

For 40-years, Cuban exiles have been among the staunchest supporters of the longstanding U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. But some prominent Cuban-Americans, joined by a corps of former U.S. diplomats, academics and others, have now formed a non-partisan group to push for an end to U.S. sanctions against Cuba. The Cuba Policy Foundation recently unveiled its agenda during a news conference in Miami.

Former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Sally Grooms Cowal is perhaps best known for housing Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez last year in Washington after federal agents forcibly removed the boy from Miami and reunited him with his father. Today, Ms. Cowal heads the Cuba Policy Foundation, a self-proclaimed centrist group that advocates lifting the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

The former diplomat says the sanctions have hurt U.S. business interests and proven wholly ineffective in promoting democratic reform on the island. "Our policy toward Cuba has failed America and has failed the cause of freedom in Cuba. The other side, of course, has said that we need to give the embargo just a little more time to work, that is it has only been a short time since the fall of the Soviet Union," say Ms Cowal. "But, you know, it has been 10-years since the fall of communism. No matter how you slice it or dice it, failure is failure, and Fidel Castro remains."

As a first step, Ambassador Cowal says the United States should lift the travel ban that prevents the vast majority of Americans from visiting Cuba. She says Americans are the world's best proponents of freedom and should be allowed to go to Cuba so that their ideals can spread.

Other members of the Cuba Policy Foundation include Cuban exile Alfredo Duran, a veteran of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of the island. Mr. Duran says the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba has done nothing but provide the Cuban Government with a convenient excuse for repression and a scapegoat for economic failure. "It serves as a Berlin wall around Cuba that prohibits it from being contaminated by new ideas in the social, political, and economic field," he says. "It protects the [Castro] regime, as it stands now, and gives cause to the Cuban Government to justify [blame] all its problems on U.S. policy."

Alfredo Duran is one of the few members of the Cuba Policy Foundation who lives and works in Miami. Most are Cuban-Americans whose families left South Florida and maintain a physical and ideological distance from the hard line pro-embargo stance that prevails in Miami.

That stance continues to be represented by the Cuban-American National Foundation. Spokeswoman Ninoska Perez says years ago many nations steadfastly maintained sanctions against South Africa until apartheid was abolished. Similarly, she says U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba must remain in place until real change comes to the island. "There was apartheid in South Africa, and everybody condemned it," she says. "It seems ridiculous to think that we should have relations with a country that violates human rights, that foreigners should go and invest money in Cuba when Cubans can not even have their own businesses."

Ms. Perez says Cuba under Fidel Castro would be an untrustworthy trading partner for the United States. She points out that Cuba is in debt to many countries that conduct business on the island, and that nations such as Canada that trade with Cuba have had little success in promoting democratic reform. "Years of travel by Spaniards, Mexicans, Latin Americans, have not produced any changes in Cuba, simply because there is a dictatorship in power that does not allow change," says Ms. Perez. "Travel to Cuba would only enrich Fidel Castro's regime."

Some observers of the Cuban-American community say the emergence of groups advocating an end to the U.S. embargo reflects an on-going generational change within the community. Many of the older, hardline voices are fading, replaced by a younger generation that appears more willing to take a fresh look at U.S. policies toward Cuba and rethink the best means of promoting change on the island.