By MARTIN DYCKMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 1999
A fringe candidacy like Pat Buchanan's gives him the liberty to say what he pleases without worrying that it will cost him the presidency. There is a corresponding liability: People won't pay attention even when they should.
Such was the fate of Buchanan's remarkable, provocative speech 12 days ago, "Toward a More Moral Foreign Policy," in which he denounced trade sanctions against Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya and other countries against which the United States bears some cause or grudge.
Had it been a "viable" candidate such as John McCain or Bill Bradley talking about "a sanctions sword that slaughters children," or postulating that "our sanctions may today be the main pillar of Castro's power," it would not have been a one-day story, and most editorial pages and columnists would have responded.
Among the few who did, when Buchanan said it, it was dutifully noted that, as he admitted, it was a 180-degree turn for him. In 1996, Buchanan supported the Clinton administration's toughening of sanctions against Cuba after its air force shot down two civilian airplanes. That he now excoriates Clinton's sanctions raises inevitable questions as to which time, and under what conditions, he was sincere.
The point of the story, however, is not whether a politician changed his mind but whether he said something, in character or not, that makes urgent sense, something that the American public and the other presidential candidates cannot responsibly write off to his presumed unelectability. This time, Buchanan did.
Buchanan's message, stripped of its hyperbole, is basically this: Trade sanctions ordinarily cannot change a tyrant's behavior. They punish his people, not him. They strengthen rather than weaken his hand. They breed hatred among the people of the targeted nations and resentment even among America's allies. (Buchanan's speech is on his Web site at http://www.gopatgo2000.com.)
Buchanan is not alone in such views. Pope John Paul II, for example, has opposed on moral grounds the Iraqi embargo, which applies even to the chlorine necessary to sanitize water. UNICEF has suggested that the sanctions are responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children. "To bully and brutalize the Iraqi people on account of Iraq's uncooperative leader is to punish innocents, not to practice diplomacy," wrote Denis Halliday, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. John McCain has conceded that except for South Africa, no sanctions have succeeded since World War II.
If Congress could be put on a diet of truth serum, it would not be surprising to find a consensus that the Cuban embargo is actually prolonging Castro in power exactly as Buchanan says -- by giving the dictator "a scapegoat for his own failures." But none dares say so. U.S. policy is dictated by Cuban emigre fanatiacism in the key electoral states of New Jersey and Florida. Among the major party candidates, only McCain has talked of relaxing sanctions while Castro remains in power and then only in exchange for political freedoms not demanded of China and unlikely to be conceded by Castro.
The ultimate cost of our spiteful policy toward Cuba will be greater than even Buchanan recognizes. Castro's days are numbered, by human mortality (he's 73) if nothing else. The embargo zealots seem to believe that democracy and free markets will flourish naturally in his absence, but nothing in Cuba's history -- or any other nation's recent history -- supports so naive a view.
Cuba had scant experience with democracy or free markets before Castro's revolution. Under the corrupt patronage of the dictator Castro overthrew, Cuba was little better than a satellite for certain U.S. agribusinesses and mafiosi; many of Cuba's elite were parasites who cared no more about political equality than he does. Remove him suddenly, and what most likely fills the void? A superficial democracy like Russia's, where organized crime controls everything that really matters.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in September, Cuba has "none of the elements of civil society that hold a country in place . . . it is Haiti waiting to happen, only closer to our shores." There is only one alternative: Relax the embargo, let Cubans study and train in the United States, allow U.S. investment and trade. Now, before it's too late.
This is, of course, the antithesis of Buchanan's profoundly isolationist position on other issues affecting international trade. But if he is inconsistent, so are all the other candidates, who extol free trade only so long as the trading partners are not politically incorrect.