Torricelli: After meeting Castro, I have no regrets choking Cuba | Opinion
Updated on Nov 30, 2016 at 11:07 PM EST
By Robert Torricelli
The death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro raises once again the issue of
the American embargo. It’s a controversial law that for five decades has
been more misunderstood and misrepresented than anything I’ve
experienced in public life.
I authored the law strengthening the U.S. embargo under President George
H.W. Bush when I was in Congress, so a little perspective is in order as
we ponder Castro’s passing and what he meant to U.S.-Cuba relations.
Among my first memories as a child growing up in Franklin Lakes were of
the U.S. and the USSR teetering on the brink of nuclear war. Only
recently have we learned just how close we came to global destruction.
Poor communication required the Kremlin to give launch authority to
local Soviet commanders. Castro urged a Soviet nuclear attack if
American forces landed on his shores. We now know that those weapons
were operational. This was Fidel Castro.
I met him in the spring of 1990 in his sprawling home by Havana Harbor.
What I imagined to be an exchange of pleasantries quickly became a
rambling four-hour conversation. It was a tour de force. I doubted that
I’d ever see him again and I thought that I had nothing to lose.
I dove right in:
Did you kill JFK? “Not in my interest,” Castro said. President Johnson
was worse for Cuba, he said.
And how did you know that the landing would be at the Bay of Pigs? “U.S.
spy planes had been flying over it for days,” he said.
Did you always intend to create a Communist government? “I never heard
of the term,” applied to the Revolution, he said. President Nixon,
Castro told me, walked out of the Harlem Hotel where they had a pleasant
conversation and told the press that “I was a Communist.”
Hours before our conversation, I had met political prisoners who had
been incarcerated for four decades. One noted that the day of my visit
was the first time the steel panels had been removed from his jailhouse
windows, allowing him to see the sun. This was Fidel Castro.
Cuba had become more than an island prison. Basic freedoms were denied
and generations were lost in abject poverty. A land — rich from farming
and fishing — with a strong and entrepreneurial people had been
diminished to importing food, while filling the streets with unemployed
youth and teenage prostitutes. This was Fidel Castro.
No amount of poverty was enough to thwart Castro’s ambitions. Throughout
the 1980s he continued to fund revolutions in Africa and Latin America.
Thousands died from his armaments in Marxist insurrections while his
island starved. This was Fidel Castro.
This was the reality of the Castro that I met in 1990. When I left that
day, I decided to be part of the solution. Within two years, President
Bush signed (under political pressure from then-Gov. Bill Clinton) the
Cuban Democracy Act.
It was a simple plan. It plugged the holes in the original restrictions
put in place by President Kennedy, but barriers to communication were
lifted. The U.S. would deny Castro hard currency — some $720 million in
subsidiary trade — to prop up the regime and cause internal pressure
for reform by flooding the island with rising expectations through open
There were almost immediately problems with the plan. Castro refused all
American efforts to increase communication (news bureaus, reopening
telephone cable, etc.) and later Venezuela under the Chavez regime began
shipping subsidized oil, giving Castro a new source for hard currency by
People ask me all the time whether I have any regrets about sponsoring
the bill. The Cuban economy contracted and Castro remained with no
breakthrough in political reform. The legislation, however, was not
without its impact.
From the date of enactment of the Cuban Democracy Act, Cuba never again
led an international insurgency. The wars in Central America came to an
end. Cuba withdrew from Africa. The legislation didn’t produce a free
Cuba but untold thousands of lives were saved by ending Castro’s foreign
Robert Torricelli, a Democrat, represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate
(1997-2003) and House of Representatives (1983-1997).
Source: Torricelli: After meeting Castro, I have no regrets choking Cuba
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