02/11/2011 11:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


There's something about the subject of Cuba that just riles people up. So it was with anticipation and no little anxiety that I strapped myself into the anchor chair at Destination Casa Blanca to moderate a conversation on Cuba. Looking back on it, the conversation was more civil than many, and still more contentious than most.

The problem boils down to a few simple observations about the state of play in America's Last Front in the Cold War:

1) The people who want to keep the pressure on Raul and Fidel Castro and Cuba's Communist Party point out that the island nation deprives its people of political freedoms, holds political prisoners, punishes dissent and can't deliver economically for its people.

2) The people who want to end the embargo point out that almost 50 years after the Kennedy Administration imposed a near-total embargo on Cuba, little has changed there politically demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the policy.

The two sides have been talking past each other for decades. That much has not changed. Two recent events have only sharpened the disagreement, and in a way perfectly in keeping with this 50-year old shouting match, guarantee it will continue for now: The Obama Administration has opened US airports to flights to and from Cuba, removed many of the restrictions on cash remittances to Cuban citizens, and made it easier for church, educational, and cultural visits. While all this was happening, Cuban-born and staunchly anti-Communist Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has become the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the committee of responsibility for Cuba policy.

In many ways the embargo, what the Cubans call "El Bloqueo," "the Blockade," is increasingly honored in the breach. It is a serious piece of economic pressure, make no mistake. But over the years it's been modified, loosened, and amended to the point where the United States is one of the top exporters to the island, the number one supplier of food, and the number two supplier of visitors (mostly Cuban-born US residents, and Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island, but increasingly US citizens with no family connections).

Embargo opponents say the embargo and the Helms-Burton laws that restrict commerce between third party countries and Cuba have made the island poor and placed pressures on the Cuban economy no American government placed on other Communist governments. Embargo supporters reply that Cuba is free, and has been free to trade with all the other countries of the world, and the economy stinks anyway. The US embargo, its supporters say, is only an excuse for the lousy performance of the Cuban economy.

Here's where it gets complicated... where the cascading "yeah, but" moments begin...
Yeah, but... not being able to trade with a historic trading partner and leading world economy just 90 miles away is not fully compensated by being able to trade with countries thousands of miles away...

Yeah, but... for decades the Eastern Bloc traded with Cuba on preferential terms, in much the same way the Chavez government in Venezuela does today, and Cuba is still not able to deliver a higher standard of living for its people...

Yeah, but... even though exceptions have been made for medicines, many patented medicines and medical equipment from the United States either can't be purchased, or can only be purchased on the world market at a steep mark-up... And the US government prosecutes and fines entities who run afoul of the laws...

Yeah, but... the celebrated Cuban medical system can't even provide widely available medicines to its hospital patients, and makes families bring their own sheets, and even their own food, to supply family members during treatment.

And on it goes. World without end, amen.

I have recently been to Cuba. I travel a great deal in the developing world (as a matter of fact, this dispatch is being written in a hotel room in Guatemala City). I can tell you first hand that Cuba is neither the paradise that some starry-eyed Westerners tell about after a visit, or the hellhole its detractors--heavily concentrated in Washington and Miami-Dade--would have you believe.

Cuba is a developing country. It has many similarities to other developing countries around the world. In some ways it provides for its people's daily needs in a way superior to countries of equally low ($4,400 per year) per capita GDP. In terms of personal freedoms, it falls well short of many similarly struggling places around the world. The vast gulfs between rich and poor that exist in many other developing nations don't exist here, in part, because not many people are able to be rich, and in part because Cuba blunts some of the worst effects of being poor easily seen in other places in the world.

One significant way in which Cuba differs from the Dominican Republic, or Peru, or Ecuador is its generations-long animus toward the United States, and Washington's habit of roaring its distaste right back.

We fought a long, nasty, and ruinous war with Vietnam. Today you can find Vietnamese products on the shelves in American malls, and a Vietnamese ambassador in Washington. Today China's Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo sits in jail, while container ships groaning with the weight of Chinese exports head toward American ports. During the entire Cold War the United States had diplomatic and trade ties with the Soviet Union and Soviet satellite states.

Our elected leaders--from both parties--decided a long time ago that Cuba was, and will remain different as long as the Castro brothers are in power. In many ways the argument is as simple as its ever been... depending on your point of view, American policy toward Cuba has not worked, or has not worked yet.

You can see those polar opposites at work in excerpts of this week's Destination Casa Blanca, two Cuban-born debaters, Frank Calzon and Amaury Cruz, and two representatives of conservative think tanks, Ray Walser of Heritage and Dan Griswold of Cato, take diametrically opposed views of American policy and how it must change. I urge you to take a look, at

And visit this space, and the HITN website next week, for a look at the twists and turns of the ongoing immigration debate.