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.