Ep. 1-1: Cubans in Rowboats

Ah, the pilot. So many familiar faces. Sam Seaborn! Grumpy Toby! Josh’s old flame who I completely forgot existed! And, of course, the big reveal – the doofus bike-crashing president marching in to recite scripture from memory and banish the humiliated Mary Marsh back to her controversial talk shows. It’s great. It makes me want to binge watch the entire seven seasons at once. The theme song has been stuck in my head all day.

But we should move on to the issues. We’ll start off with a topic that’s changed immensely since this episode was first broadcast in ’99: the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba. In this episode, Josh is concerned about 1200 Cubans in rowboats attempting to escape to Florida who run into a hurricane. How realistic is this situation, and would it still happen today?

Why did so many Cubans want to migrate to the U.S.? 

From 1959-2008, Cuba was led by communist dictator Fidel Castro. Castro’s reign brutally cracked down on freedom of expression and bankrupted the country through socialist market reforms. Cubans emigrating to the U.S. sought what most immigrants have: the freedoms protected under our Bill of Rights and a brighter economic future.

How many Cubans successfully emigrated to the U.S.?

According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, a staggering total of 823,337 Cubans obtained lawful permanent resident status between 1950-2000. From 1966-1995, the Cuban Adjustment Act allowed all Cubans who arrived in the US to seek permanent lawful residency a year later. From 1996-2017, this policy changed to specify that only Cubans found on American soil would have this privilege – any caught in the water would be sent back (the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” policy). This special treatment exempted Cubans from deportation once they reached the U.S., and hundreds of thousands took advantage of it.

Why did Cubans have this special status?

This policy was enacted in the midst of the Cold War, when the U.S. was attempting to prove the superiority of democracy over communism. After Castro nationalized all U.S. businesses in Cuba in 1960, the U.S. shut off diplomatic relations, enacted a trade embargo, and froze Cuban assets. Cubans were seen as political refugees fleeing from a communist wasteland, and the U.S. thought it could bolster its public image and undercut nearby communism by welcoming them with open arms.

Is Cuba still a communist state?

Technically, yes, but it is much less totalitarian than it was under Castro. In 2014, the Pope and Canada sponsored negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba that led to the re-normalization of relations (re-opening embassies and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism). In the future, we argue that it is in the American national interest to lift the trade embargo with Cuba. Greater economic ties will help improve the bilateral relationship as well as facilitate Cuba’s transition to a more democratic state (more below).

What is the current Cuban immigration policy?

In January 2017, President Obama ended the wet-foot/dry-foot policy following normalization of relations with Cuba. Cuban immigrants without a visa can now be deported like illegal immigrants from any other country.

Why did the U.S. normalize relations with Cuba?

Normalization of relations with Cuba is grounded in two foreign policy tenets long held by the American government: 1) it is in American interests to support the growth of democratic institutions, societies, and regimes; and 2) economic growth, if sustained, will eventually lead to democratic transition (aka modernization theory).  In other words, America’s security and economy are both supported by democratic societies.

Democratic peace theory, which basically amounts to a truth in political science, argues that democratic countries are unlikely to fight each other because of normative values, structural bureaucratic elements, and the threat of elections. Aligned security interests create greater investment in areas of shared concern and reduce tension in areas where interests diverge. Democratic societies also stabilize economic investment and bolster trade that increases the size of the pie for both Americans and foreigners.

Sounds great! Why didn’t we do this earlier?

Although a democratic Cuba, Cuba’s previous links to terrorism long stymied hopes of reconciliation. Cuba was placed on a list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982 due to its support for leftist guerrilla groups in Central and South America. This was Cold War policy; none of this sponsorship ever posed a direct threat to American security, and in recent years, Cuba has taken further steps to completely disavow itself of any terrorism links. The lack of legitimate reasons to keep Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism led to its removal and helped bring about normalization.

So what comes next for Cuba?

The next step is for the Senate to lift the Cuban trade embargo, which will lead to economic investment pouring into Cuba. In addition, the lifting of the travel ban has led to an explosion of tourism to Cuba, strengthening cultural and economic ties that will decrease the likelihood of conflict and increase the U.S.’s ability to help improve Cuba’s future. A Cuban reliance on American investment will increase our ability to influence their political growth, bringing them closer to democracy and the benefits described above.


Josh and Donna watch: She brings him a cup of coffee! More chemistry is instantly established in this thirty-second scene than in the entire ten-minute yawn-fest with beret lady at the diner. There’s a reason I didn’t remember her, no matter how many times they tell me she’s the best (the reason is Donna).


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