Note: In a near-unanimous voice the United Nations (UN) General Assembly called on the United States on Tuesday, November 12 to end its 42-year embargo against Cuba. US policy-makers are still not convinced and are asking the question of whether the embargo is an appropriate foreign policy instrument for achieving national goals. The Cuban government estimates the negative effect of the blockade at more than $67 billion. The article that follows was written prior to the Nov. 12 UN meeting.
Cuba is an integral part of the Caribbean. However, with the scant attention many West Indians give to this important island in world history, you would think Cuba was part of Asia or Arabia. Our perceptions of its leader, Fidel Castro, is still fuelled by the skewed portrait painted by the US: a dictator who uses his power to subjugate his citizens and deny land rights to its Cuban exile community. If we would peel back this propaganda, we will see a man who supported forces fighting for the end of apartheid in South Africa, rid Cuba of the mafia and other colonial powers that were prostituting Cuba, and renounced his European heritage because of the evils of slavery. He is by no means a saint. He has clamped down on religious activity, discouraged dissent and accumulated enormous wealth from kickbacks from foreign companies doing business in Cuba. But for issues such as race and colonialism, most West Indians should be on the same page as Fidel. Now the US has upped the ante in using the trade embargo to oust Fidel.
Will we ever see the end of this Cold War relic: the US embargo on Cuba? After repeated US attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and isolate Cuba economically, Cuba still operates under the dictatorship of Fidel. Cuba has also survived the withdrawal of its greatest benefactor, Russia, which had its own economic and political woes in its transition from communism to a free market system. More galling to conservatives favoring a regime change in Cuba is that Fidel is still in relatively good health and will continue to be a thorn in the US side for years to come.
By crippling the Cuban economy with the trade embargo, the US hopes that Cuban citizens will revolt against Fidel. The Cuban exile community and the conservative Republican wing fiercely hold onto this logic. The embargo has definitely hurt the Cuban people as evidenced by the chronic shortages of basic food supplies, power outages and rise in crime. However, the popularity of Fidel has not waned to the point where the populace has openly agitated for change. On the contrary, the embargo has reinforced Fidel’s dictatorship by painting the US as the common enemy.
The futility in the US economic embargo is exacerbated by the heavy investment in Cuba by Europe and other nations that have ignored the US plea to put sanctions on the Cuban government. Furthermore, members of the Cuban-exile Miami community, who are militantly opposed to Fidel, inadvertently blunt the effects of the embargo by sending hard US currency to their relatives. Cuba is also becoming a tourism destination for many Europeans who are attracted by the lovely beaches and the lure of Cuba’s favorite export: cigars.
Cuban Exiles – Political Power
Why then has this senseless economic embargo persisted? It has persisted in large part through the lobby of the influential Cuban-exile community which political analysts view as an important voting bloc needed to capture local, congressional, and presidential races in Florida. From the last presidential election, we are all aware of the importance of the Florida vote, which gave President Bush a presidential victory over then Vice President Gore by a slim margin. Right-wing ideologues like former head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina, whose foreign policy views seem stuck in the Cold War-era also resist any rational dialogue on the embargo. The venom that conservatives tend to have for Fidel probably stems from the resiliency of the Castro regime after the humiliating defeat of US forces in the Bay of Pigs insurrection and having Cuba empty its jails (Mariel boatlift) in response to Jimmy Carter’s overtures to the Cuban people.
The Cuban exile community’s dislike of Fidel, which has buoyed this embargo, has had far reaching negative effects that some fail to see. The black community has never forgiven the Cuban-dominated mayoral government for not extending an invitation to Nelson Mandela after his release from prison under the South African apartheid administration headed by F W DeClerk. It was an open secret that his ties to Fidel Castro (who had supported Mandela’s ANC) made him persona non grata in Miami. In Florida, relationships between black and Cuban communities remain strained.
Furthermore, the Elian Gonzalez case also revealed fissures in Anglo-Latino relationships. Many Anglos could not see how the Cuban-exile community viewed the Elian Gonzalez affair as a Castro ploy. According to national polls, the majority opinion was that Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba. Many Anglos were appalled at the apparent extremism of the Cuban community in Miami, which, as a side effect, raised the levels of xenophobia.
The embargo has led to economic conditions that have taken the lives of Cubans who brave treacherous waters to get to Florida. It also leaves the US at an economic disadvantage to the countries that have heavily invested in Cuba. If the US really wants a regime change it should remove its embargo. By increasing trade with Cuba, income that flows into Cuba will eventually enlarge the middle class. With new well-educated, affluent classes, a revolution will come when the socialist model constricts these classes’ ability to create wealth.
The US cannot keep using Cuba’s human rights violations as an excuse for continuing the embargo because it is morally incongruous since China (which has exponentially more human rights violations) is a major US trading partner. Hopefully those conservatives who espouse the virtues of the free market system will see that unfettered trade is the answer to removing a fox that has managed to outfox the US for the past four decades.