CONCORD, Mass. — "We tried to exempt cigars," John Kennedy told me in early 1961, when I brought him the order that imposed an embargo on trade with Cuba, "but the cigar manufacturers in Tampa objected. I guess we're out of luck."
He was right — I was out of luck. But the president never seemed to run out of Cuban cigars.
The embargo was part of our effort to overthrow Fidel Castro, one weapon in an arsenal including assassination, sabotage of the economy, guerrilla infiltration — a kind of state-sponsored terrorism.
None of it worked. An overthrow required a strong, organized internal opposition, and that didn't exist. Indeed, we had helped neutralize it by our attempted invasion of the Bay of Pigs.
"I want to thank you for the Bay of Pigs," Che Guevara told me in Uruguay during an unexpected meeting at a party for a Latin American diplomat in 1961. "It solidified our rule and discouraged our middle-class enemies."
"You're welcome," I replied. "Now, maybe you'll invade Guantanamo."
"Never," he laughed.
At the height of the Cold War, with strong Communist movements in other Latin American countries, the unanticipated transformation of Cuba into a Communist outpost seemed a potential threat to our security. The policy of containment had broken down only 90 miles from Florida.
Then with the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba a year later, Kennedy dispatched an emissary to talk with the Cuban delegate to the United Nations, in hopes of laying the groundwork for some rapprochement.
After the president died, the embargo was frozen in place for four more decades. In this time, Soviet communism tumbled. The Communist-led movements in Latin America disappeared. We welcomed trade with the Soviet Union and China. But the embargo on Cuba stayed in place, the historical artifact of a Cold War that had ended.
This anomalous policy owed its durability to Florida politics. The exile community in Miami turned against any politician willing to dilute our hostility toward the Cuban government.
Kennedy had foreseen this when he made a futile effort to persuade new exiles to settle in other parts of the country. But they continued to come to Miami, and their intransigence and voting power threatened any presidential candidate with the loss of Florida's crucial electoral votes.
No president or candidate was willing to take that risk. So for political reasons — and only for political reasons — the embargo has remained.
Paradoxically, the embargo has only strengthened Fidel Castro, the lone surviving leader of the '60s, and enhanced his stature in Latin America. A few years ago, I went to a conference of Latin American leaders and functionaries in Colombia. When Castro entered, the audience of capitalists stood and cheered. And not for ideological reasons. He had stood up to the Yankees and won.
Castro's popularity rests on his defiance of our hostility. There can be no doubt that opening Cuba to American business would have salutary effect on the country. It would also greatly improve the prospects that the Cuban people will move toward a market economy and democracy.
That is, after all, the dominant lesson of recent history. The Cuban people have endured hardships and deprivation for decades. It is time to welcome them back into the American community, not grudgingly, but with the generosity of spirit that we like to think characterizes our nation.
Richard N. Goodwin was a White House assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B.Johnson.