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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bringing Down Castro

I am amazed that U.S. President Bill Clinton has become a supporter of Fidel Castro -- and an enemy of the Cuban people -- like many of his predecessors. This idea of an embargo against Cuba goes back all the way to when I was working with President John F. Kennedy.

It is true that my president also made a major mistake early in his administration in the operation of the Bay of Pigs invasion. But unlike many other presidents who have gotten into trouble, he went live on television the day after the Bay of Pigs and said: "I am the president of the United States. I made this decision. I made this mistake. I take all responsibility for it."

There was an extraordinary reaction from the American people. Two weeks later, a poll showed that Kennedy had the support of 82 percent of the American public. I will never forget his calling me into the office and saying: "I hope I don't have to continue doing stupid things like that to remain popular."

John F. Kennedy imposed the embargo against Cuba, but late in his administration he understood he had made another mistake. Only five days before he was assassinated, he had a meeting with a French journalist who, Kennedy discovered, was heading for Havana. Kennedy gave him a note to pass on to Castro calling for negotiations to normalize relations between the two countries. The president understood that if the embargo was not lifted, that if trade was not re-established between the United States and Cuba, the Soviet Union would dominate that island.

That journalist was in Castro's office when the phone rang, bringing the news that Kennedy had been killed. If the embargo had been lifted in 1964, Cuba would be a different -- and democratic -- nation today.

In 1975, when I held my first and only meeting with Castro, I learned that the Ford administration understood that relations between Cuba and the United States should be normalized. Accompanying me to the meeting with Castro was the famous American journalist, Scotty Reston. At one point in our long meeting with Castro, Reston said to him, "Excuse me, sir, but can I change my hat?"

"What kind of a hat do you want to put on?" Castro asked.

Reston said he was bringing a diplomatic message from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He said that Kissinger wanted to start a dialogue with Cuba to normalize relations. Castro said he was willing to discuss it, but only after the embargo was lifted. "That's what Kissinger told me you would say," Reston said.

They then negotiated a pre-dialogue between the U.S. and Cuban ambassadors in Madrid to start the process. Unfortunately, six weeks later, Cuba was persuaded by the Soviet Union to send 30,000 troops to Angola, and those talks broke down.

Now, more than 30 years since the embargo was created and almost five years since the Soviet Union crumbled, we are looking at things in a desperately wrong way. We keep saying that the embargo or tougher sanctions will bring down the Castro regime and bring democracy to Cuba. Of course, we want to see the Castro regime go down. Of course, we want democracy in Cuba. But we are simply forgetting history. And, unfortunately, those who seem to forget history the most are the Cuban Americans who are pushing the Clinton administration in this direction.

Did we bring an end to Communism in Eastern-bloc countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and others with embargoes or sanctions? Did we bring down Communism in the Soviet Union by imposing embargoes or sanctions? Of course not!

We traded with those countries. We maintained diplomatic relations with them, and our presidents visited those Communist countries. Dialogue was under way all the time. The important links that President Ronald Reagan set up with Mikhail Gorbachev's regime and his extraordinary Moscow summit with Gorbachev in 1986 played a significant role in waking up the Soviet population to the reality that they had to go in another direction.

Embargoes and sanctions beef up leaders and ruin populations. Look at the examples. We wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He is still powerful there as the sanctions continue. But tens of thousands of Iraqis are dying every year from hunger or medical problems.

The only embargo that worked was against South Africa. But you also have to understand history there. First, it was an international -- not a U.S. -- embargo. And the countries involved, including the United States, did not break their diplomatic relations with South Africa. The United States and other countries kept a strong dialogue with that country in a continuing effort to persuade its leaders to move toward democracy. American companies allowed blacks to play significant roles in their business until the companies were forced to leave South Africa, but they showed how firms could operate there without accepting apartheid.

Now we are beefing up Fidel Castro and causing even greater problems for the Cuban people. Believe me, if Clinton had dropped the embargo early in his administration, we would not now be seeing thousands of Cubans fleeing the country. Castro would have stepped down, and Cuba would have already had its first democratic election. Of course, the same thing is happening in Haiti, where we are destroying the population and beefing up the power of the military leadership.

Let's go back to history. Let's adopt the policy that helped us bring down the Communist regimes except for North Korea (no embargo), China (no embargo) and Cuba (a long embargo). Let's not be pals of dictators. Let's be the pals of populations. By doing this, we will persuade them to get rid of their dictators, as they did at the end of the Cold War.

Pierre Salinger was press secretary to President John F. Kennedy. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.