Jimmy Carter, who learned Spanish in the Navy, found a special use for that skill in 1969, when he was a state senator in Georgia. In that year he worked for some days as a Southern Baptist lay evangelist in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Springfield, Mass.
In a speech at the University of Havana on May 14 of this year, former President Carter was in a sense evangelizing in Spanish once again, but this time he was preaching not the Gospel but the political ideals of peace and friendship between nations and freedom for people everywhere.
That speech was brief and diplomatic, but its two main themes were clear. Mr. Carter pointed out that the United States and Cuba have been trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for 42 years and said it is time to change that relationship. He added that because the United States is the most powerful nation, we should take the first step.
His hope, Mr. Carter said, is that Congress will soon take that step by repealing the economic embargo against Cuba, as well as permitting unrestricted travel between the two countries and establishing open trading relationships. On the other hand, he advised President Fidel Castro to get going on modifying his socialist government so as to allow opposition movements to operate freely.
The balance here was neat. Mr. Castro wanted to hear the former U.S. president call for dropping the sanctions, but the price he had to pay was to hear Jimmy Carter also call for civil liberties in Cuba. Most Cubans would be better off if Mr. Castro eased his harsh policies, just as they would also be better off if the embargo were lifted.
It should be clear by now that the United States cannot do much to promote respect for human rights by imposing economic sanctions on dictatorial regimes. Embargoes create suffering for ordinary people, particularly children and the sick, without budging despots themselves.
When he visited Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II called the embargo both unjust and morally unacceptable and said, It is time to leave aside a policy that, whatever moral justification it may once have had, has clearly outlived its purpose.
A year later, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Theodore E. McCarrick, speaking as chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s International Policy Committee, echoed the pope in a letter to the U.S. Congress: The Catholic bishops of Cuba, as well as those of the United States, are persuaded that the principal effects of the U.S. embargo, apart from providing the Cuban government with an excuse for every failure of its economy, are to deprive the neediest people of essential foods and medicines.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter’s advice to the United States doesn’t appeal to President Bush. In Miami on May 20, the president told a cheering crowd of Cuban-Americans that he will not even think of lifting the embargo until President Castro has first democratized his government.
That was a flat rejection of Mr. Carter’s recommendation, and perhaps not many Americans care much. In the United States, this question of the sanctions has little resonance outside Miami. There are, however, some pragmatic precedents worth keeping in mind here. The United States has already made concessions to China and other nondemocratic countries for the sake of promoting free trade.
There is, besides, another point that Mr. Bush should consider as he ponders his war on terrorism. Fidel Castro has lost his Soviet sponsors, but he is in an excellent position to help those hostile Middle Easterners at whom the anti-terrorist campaign is aimed. Of course, he is an unpredictable opportunist, and in dealing with him Washington cannot let its guard down. All the same, President Bush should judge easier access to a friendlier Cuba to be more important than keeping the Cuban voters in Florida happy.