WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 29, 1962, 11 months before he was murdered by an advocate for Fidel Castro's regime (Lee Harvey Oswald had distributed propaganda on a New Orleans street for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee), President John Kennedy, speaking in Miami's Orange Bowl to veterans of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, received from them a Cuban flag and vowed, "I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana." In Cuba, too, regime change has turned out to be more problematic than American policymakers imagined.
Even after the Bay of Pigs -- arguably the most feckless use of U.S. power ever -- Cuba unhinged some American officials. In his biography of Robert Kennedy, Newsweek's Evan Thomas reports that one high-ranking CIA operative had a plan "to surface an American submarine just over the Havana horizon to fire star shells into the night sky, in the hopes of convincing the Cubans that the Second Coming was imminent, thus spurring them to get rid of the anti-Christ -- Castro." Skeptics called this "elimination by illumination."
The question of what should be done now begins with the matter of the U.S. trade embargo. Cuban-Americans demanded its imposition in 1961, applauded its strengthening in 1996 and largely favor its continuation. Changing it would be politically problematic. The Cuban-American vote can be decisive in Florida, whose 27 electoral votes are 10 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Add the 15 electoral votes of New Jersey, another state with a large Cuban-American community, and 16 percent of the 270 can turn on policy toward Cuba.
The embargo was imposed when Cuba was a salient of Soviet values and interests in this hemisphere. Today, Cuba is a sad, threadbare geopolitical irrelevancy. Far from threatening Castro's regime, the embargo has enabled Castro to exploit Cubans' debilitating mentality of taking comfort from victimhood -- the habit, more than a century old, of blaming problems on others, first on Spain and then on the United States.
Those facts do not, however, by themselves make the case for ending the embargo without some reciprocal liberalization by (the other) Castro's regime. Granted, it is arguable that the embargo should be abandoned, or significantly eased, regardless of how the Cuban regime behaves, because the regime has much to fear from any increased permeation of Cuba by foreign commercial and intellectual presences.