The Cuba Lobby
The most powerful lobby in Washington isn't the NRA. It's the Castro-hating right wing that has Obama's bureaucrats terrified and inert.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are discovering that fame provides no immunity from the Cuba Lobby's animus for anyone who has the audacity to act as if Cuba is a normal country rather than the heart of darkness. After the pop icons' recent trip to the island to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the Cuba Lobby's congressional contingent -- Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart -- castigated the couple, demanding that they be investigated for violating the half-century-old U.S. embargo. (As it turned out, the trip had been authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department as a cultural exchange.) Still, celebrity trips to Cuba make headlines, and condemnation by the Cuba Lobby is always quick to follow. But what seems like a Hollywood sideshow is actually symptomatic of a much deeper and more dangerous problem -- a problem very much like the one that afflicted U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, an aggressive foreign-policy lobby was able to prevent rational debate about an anachronistic policy by intimidating anyone who dared challenge it.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are discovering that fame provides no immunity from the Cuba Lobby’s animus for anyone who has the audacity to act as if Cuba is a normal country rather than the heart of darkness. After the pop icons’ recent trip to the island to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the Cuba Lobby’s congressional contingent — Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — castigated the couple, demanding that they be investigated for violating the half-century-old U.S. embargo. (As it turned out, the trip had been authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department as a cultural exchange.) Still, celebrity trips to Cuba make headlines, and condemnation by the Cuba Lobby is always quick to follow. But what seems like a Hollywood sideshow is actually symptomatic of a much deeper and more dangerous problem — a problem very much like the one that afflicted U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, an aggressive foreign-policy lobby was able to prevent rational debate about an anachronistic policy by intimidating anyone who dared challenge it.
"A wasteland." That’s how W. Averell Harriman described the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs when he took it over for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. "It’s a disaster area filled with human wreckage.… Some of them are so beaten down they can’t be saved. Some of those you would want to save are just finished. They try and write a report and nothing comes out. It’s a terrible thing." As David Halberstam recounts in The Best and the Brightest, the destruction of the State Department’s expertise on Asia was the result of the China Lobby’s decade-long assault on everyone, from professors to Foreign Service officers, who disputed the charge that communist sympathizers in the United States had "lost China." The China Lobby and its allies in Congress forced President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower to purge the State Department of its most senior and knowledgeable "China hands," while continuing to perpetuate the fiction that the Nationalist government in Taiwan was the "real" China, rather than the communist government on the mainland — a policy stance that persisted long after the rest of the world had come to terms with Mao Zedong’s victory. The result was a department that had little real knowledge about Asia and was terrified of straying from far-right orthodoxy. This state of affairs contributed directly to the debacle of Vietnam.
Today, U.S. relations with Latin America are suffering from an equally irrational policy toward Cuba — a policy designed in the 1960s to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government and which, more than 50 years later, is no closer to success. Like U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s, policy toward Cuba is frozen in place by a domestic political lobby, this one with roots in the electorally pivotal state of Florida. The Cuba Lobby combines the carrot of political money with the stick of political denunciation to keep wavering Congress members, government bureaucrats, and even presidents in line behind a policy that, as President Barack Obama himself admits, has failed for half a century and is supported by virtually no other countries. (The last time it came to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, only Israel and the Pacific island of Palau sided with the United States.) Of course, the news at this point is not that a Cuba Lobby exists, but that it astonishingly lives on — even during the presidency of Obama, who publicly vowed to pursue a new approach to Cuba, but whose policy has been stymied thus far.
Like the China Lobby, the Cuba Lobby isn’t one organization but a loose-knit conglomerate of exiles, sympathetic members of Congress, and nongovernmental organizations, some of which comprise a self-interested industry nourished by the flow of "democracy promotion" money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). And like its Sino-obsessed predecessor, the Cuba Lobby was launched at the instigation of conservative Republicans in government who needed outside backers to advance their partisan policy aims. In the 1950s, they were Republican members of Congress battling New Dealers in the Truman administration over Asia policy. In the 1980s, they were officials in Ronald Reagan’s administration battling congressional Democrats over Central America policy.
At the Cuba Lobby’s request, Reagan created Radio Martí, modeled on Radio Free Europe, to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. He named Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), to chair the radio’s oversight board. President George H.W. Bush followed with TV Martí. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) authored the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, writing the economic embargo into law so no president could change it without congressional approval.
Founded at the suggestion of Richard V. Allen, Reagan’s first national security advisor, CANF became one of the most powerful ethnic foreign-policy organizations in the United States and was the linchpin of the Cuba Lobby until Mas Canosa’s death in 1997. "No individual had more influence over United States policies toward Cuba over the past two decades than Jorge Mas Canosa," the New York Times editorialized. In Washington, CANF built its reputation by spreading campaign contributions to bolster friends and punish enemies. In 1988, CANF money helped Joe Lieberman defeat incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker, whom Lieberman accused of being soft on Castro because he visited Cuba and advocated better relations. Weicker’s defeat sent a chilling message to other members of Congress: challenge the Cuba Lobby at your peril. In 1992, according to Peter Stone’s reporting in National Journal, New Jersey Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli, seduced by the Cuba Lobby’s political money, reversed his position on Havana and wrote the Cuban Democracy Act, tightening the embargo. Today, the political action arm of the Cuba Lobby is the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which hands out more campaign dollars than CANF’s political action arm did even at its height — more than $3 million in the last five national elections.
In Miami, conservative Cuban-Americans have long presumed to be the sole authentic voice o
f the community, silencing dissent by threats and, occasionally, violence. In the 1970s, anti-Castro terrorist groups like Omega 7 and Alpha 66 set off dozens of bombs in Miami and assassinated two Cuban-Americans who advocated dialogue with Castro. Reports by Human Rights Watch in the 1990s documented the climate of fear in Miami and the role that elements of the Cuba Lobby, including CANF, played in creating it.
Today, moderate Cuban-Americans have managed to carve out greater space for political debate about U.S. relations with Cuba as attitudes in the community have changed — a result of both the passing of the old exile generation of the 1960s and the arrival of new immigrants who want to maintain ties with family they left behind. But a network of right-wing radio stations and right-wing bloggers still routinely vilifies moderates by name, branding anyone who favors dialogue as a spy for Castro. The modus operandi is the same as the China Lobby’s in the 1950s: One anti-Castro crusader makes dubious accusations of espionage, often based on guilt by association, which the others then repeat ad nauseam, citing one other as proof.
Like the China Lobby before it, the Cuba Lobby has also struck fear into the heart of the foreign-policy bureaucracy. The congressional wing of the Cuba Lobby, in concert with its friends in the executive branch, routinely punishes career civil servants who don’t toe the line. One of the Cuba Lobby’s early targets was John J. "Jay" Taylor, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, who was given an unsatisfactory annual evaluation report in 1988 by Republican stalwart Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, because Taylor reported from Havana that the Cubans were serious about wanting to negotiate peace in southern Africa and Central America. "CANF had close contact with the Cuban desk, which soon turned notably unfriendly toward my reporting from post and it seemed toward me personally," Taylor recalled in an oral history interview. "Mas and the foundation soon assumed that I was too soft on Castro."
The risks of crossing the Cuba Lobby were not lost on other foreign-policy professionals. In 1990, Taylor was in Washington to consult about the newly launched TV Martí, which the Cuban government was jamming so completely that Cubans on the island dubbed it, "la TV que no se ve" ("No-see TV"). But TV Martí’s patrons in Washington blindly insisted that the vast majority of the Cuban population was watching the broadcasts. Taylor invited the U.S. Information Agency officials responsible for TV Martí to come to Cuba to see for themselves. "Silence prevailed around the table," he recalled. "I don’t think anyone there really believed TV Martí signals were being received in Cuba. It was a Kafkaesque moment, a true Orwellian experience, to see a room full of grown, educated men and women so afraid for their jobs or their political positions that they could take part in such a charade."
In 1993, the Cuba Lobby opposed the appointment of President Bill Clinton’s first choice to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Mario Baeza, because he had once visited Cuba. According to Stone, fearful of the Cuba Lobby’s political clout, Clinton dumped Baeza. Two years later, Clinton caved in to the Cuba Lobby’s demand that he fire National Security Council official Morton Halperin, who was the architect of the successful 1995 migration accord with Cuba that created a safe, legal route for Cubans to emigrate to the United States. One chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba told me he stopped sending sensitive cables to the State Department altogether because they so often leaked to Cuba Lobby supporters in Congress. Instead, the diplomat flew to Miami so he could report to the department by telephone.
During George W. Bush’s administration, the Cuba Lobby completely captured the State Department’s Latin America bureau (renamed the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs). Bush’s first assistant secretary was Otto Reich, a Cuban-American veteran of the Reagan administration and favorite of Miami hard-liners. Reich had run Reagan’s "public diplomacy" operation demonizing opponents of the president’s Central America policy as communist sympathizers. Reich hired as his deputy Dan Fisk, former staff assistant to Senator Helms and author of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Reich was followed by Roger Noriega, another former Helms staffer, who explained that Bush’s policy was aimed at destabilizing the Cuban regime: "We opted for change even if it meant chaos. The Cubans had had too much stability over decades.… Chaos was necessary in order to change reality."
In 2002, Bush’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, John Bolton, made the dubious charge that Cuba was developing biological weapons. When the national intelligence officer for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, (along with other intelligence community analysts) objected to this mischaracterization of the community’s assessment, Bolton and Reich tried repeatedly to have him fired. The Cuba Lobby began a steady drumbeat of charges that Armstrong was a Cuban agent because his and the community’s analysis disputed the Bush team’s insistence that the Castro regime was fragile and wouldn’t survive the passing of its founder. The 2001 arrest for espionage of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst, Ana Montes, heightened the Cuba Lobby’s hysteria over traitors in government in the same way that the spy cases of the 1950s — Alger Hiss and the Amerasia magazine affair — gave the China Lobby ammunition. Armstrong was subjected to repeated and intrusive security investigations, all of which cleared him of wrongdoing. (He completed a four-year term as national intelligence officer and received a prestigious CIA medal recognizing his service when he left the agency in 2008.)
When Obama was elected president, promising a "new beginning" in relations with Havana, the Cuba Lobby relied on its congressional wing to stop him. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Cuban-American Democrat in Congress and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vehemently opposes any opening to Cuba. In March 2009, he signaled his willingness to defy both his president and his party to get his way. Menendez voted with Republicans to block passage of a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill (needed to keep the government running) because it relaxed the requirement that Cuba pay in advance for food purchases from U.S. suppliers and eased restrictions on travel to th
e island. To get Menendez to relent, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had to promise in writing that the administration would consult Menendez on any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Senate Republicans also blocked confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela as Obama’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs until November 2009. With the bureau managed in the interim by Bush holdovers, no one was pushing from below to carry out Obama’s new Cuba policy. After Valenzuela stepped down in 2012, Senator Rubio (R-Fla.), whose father left Cuba in the 1950s, held up confirmation of Valenzuela’s replacement, Roberta Jacobson, until the administration agreed to tighten restrictions on educational travel to Cuba, undercutting Obama’s stated policy of increasing people-to-people engagement.
When Obama nominated career Foreign Service officer Jonathan Farrar to be ambassador to Nicaragua, the Cuba Lobby denounced him as soft on communism. During his previous posting as chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, Farrar had reported to Washington that Cuba’s traditional dissident movement had very little appeal to ordinary Cubans. Menendez and Rubio teamed up to give Farrar a verbal beating during his confirmation hearing for carrying out Obama’s policy of engaging the Cuban government rather than simply antagonizing it. When they blocked Farrar’s confirmation, Obama withdrew the nomination, sending Farrar as ambassador to Panama instead. Their point made, Menendez and Rubio did not object.
The Cuba Lobby’s power to derail diplomatic careers is common knowledge among foreign-policy professionals. Throughout Obama’s first term, midlevel State Department officials cooperated more closely and deferred more slavishly to congressional opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy than to supporters like John Kerry, the new secretary of state who served at the time as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Senator Kerry tried to get the State Department and USAID to reform the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion programs in 2010, he ran into more opposition from the bureaucracy than from Republicans. If Obama intends to finally keep the 2008 campaign promise to take a new direction in relations with Cuba, the job can’t be left to foreign-policy bureaucrats, who are so terrified of the Cuba Lobby that they continue to believe, or pretend to believe, absurdities — that Cubans are watching TV Martí, for instance, or that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. Only a determined president and a tough secretary of state can drive a new policy through a bureaucratic wasteland so paralyzed by fear and inertia.
The irrationality of U.S. policy does not stem just from concerns about electoral politics in Florida. The Cuban-American community has evolved to the point that a majority now favors engagement with Cuba, as both opinion polls and Obama’s electoral success in 2008 and 2012 demonstrate. Today, the larger problem is the climate of fear in the government bureaucracy, where even honest reporting about Cuba — let alone advocating a more sensible policy — can endanger one’s career. Democratic presidents, who ought to know better, have tolerated this distortion of the policy process and at times have reinforced it by allowing the Cuba lobby to extort concessions from them. But the cost is high — the gradual and insidious erosion of the government’s ability to make sound policy based on fact rather than fantasy.
Through bullying and character assassination, the China Lobby blocked a sensible U.S. policy toward Beijing for a quarter-century, with tragic results. When Richard Nixon finally defied the China Lobby by going to Beijing in 1972, the earth did not tremble, civilization did not collapse, and U.S. security did not suffer. If anything, U.S. allies around the world applauded the adoption — finally — of a rational policy. At home, the punditocracy was surprised to discover that Nixon’s bold stroke was politically popular. The China Lobby proved to be a paper tiger; the Red Scare fever of the 1950s had subsided, robbing the movement of its political base.
Likewise, the Cuba Lobby has blocked a sensible policy toward Cuba for half a century, with growing damage to U.S. relations with Latin America. When a courageous U.S. president finally decides to defy the Cuba Lobby with a stroke as bold as Nixon’s trip to China, she or he will discover that so too the Cuba Lobby no longer has the political clout it once had. The strategic importance of repairing the United States’ frayed relations with Latin America has come to outweigh the political risk of reconciliation with Havana. Nixon went to China, and history records it as the highlight of his checkered legacy. Will Barack Obama have the courage to go to Havana?
William M. LeoGrande is coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. Twitter: @WMLeoGrande
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.