I am thinking of Cuba, as I do often and particularly now with President Obama’s visit to the Island where I was born, the one I left in 1954 and the one I was able to return to in 2012. The years in between had been one of worrying about my family, and in particular their need for clothing, food and medicine, things we take for granted in the USA..
In October 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro took power by overthrowing the government of Fulgencio Batista, –a dictator whose excesses had been tolerated for years by the United States– then President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated an international campaign to prevent loans to the Castro government and to ban exports to Cuba. This was followed by President John F. Kennedy who, in February 1962, expanded the prohibition of all trade between Cuba and the United States. As if this wasn’t enough, in 1964, the Organization of American States joined the United States in further isolating Cuba by imposing their own trade embargo of member countries.
Restrictions were tightened by the Bush Republican administration, which outlawed subsidiary trade, severely restricting foreign ships doing business with Cuba from docking in U.S. ports. By 1995, still unsatisfied with our failure to depose Castro, we enacted the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (the “Helms-Burton” Act), which further attempts to deter foreign investment in Cuba.
In the early years of the Castro regime, the Soviet Union was Castro’s main financial support and trading partner, which lessened the impact of the embargo. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban people began to feel the embargo’s full terrible force, many living without such basic necessities as food, potable water and medicine.
Since the Castro-led revolution in 1959, many Cuban families have been exiled and separated by geography and ideology. My family is no exception. I have cousins in Cuba that I barely remember and some I have never met; others I was able to meet for the first time in 2012 when they risked their lives driving for several hours to get to Trinidad where we had agreed to meet, during a violent rain storm in a borrowed car with only one windshield wiper working for what turned out to be the most beautiful and emotional encounter I have ever had. While other relatives went to Venezuela and came to the United States, my parents, my brother and I emigrated to Panama before the revolution. The political ideologies which divided my family members into “pro- and anti-Castro factions”, certainly fueled lively debates through the 1980s, slowly softened when faced with the reality of the severe poverty and hardships suffered by our relatives still living in Cuba.
This is not the first piece I have written about ending the embargo. As a columnist for the Hartford Courant, my published piece “It’s Hard To Justify the Cuban Embargo” (January, 19, 2001) and other voices like then Senator Christopher Dodd in 2002, commented that “If you want to expose the internal failures in Cuba, remove the argument and the excuse the embargo gives, Castro” who utilizes it to blame the island’s economic woes on the U.S. trade embargo.
It has been reported again and again those most affected by the U.S. embargoes against countries like Haiti years ago, Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, or more recently Iran, Cuba, Sudan, North Korea and Syria (the countries we still have on the list) are the poor. Their survival is threatened while their countries’ leaders are emboldened and can always find ways to get whatever it is they need.
But in spite of this knowledge, we continue to enact and maintain embargoes against certain selected countries perceived as “our enemy,” further endangering the well being of innocent people whose only crime is living under a dictatorship that the U.S. finds intolerable in countries that are not essential to our economy.
Compare communist Cuba with communist China, which has been declared our “favorite trading partner” and despite the Castros’ authoritarianism, there has never been a “Tiananmen Square-like” massacre in Havana. The Cuban government has not invaded and destroyed another country like the Chinese have done in Tibet. Nor does Cuba continue to curtail and persecute a religious sect, as China continues to do with the Falun Gong.
When our economic interests are at stake, we conveniently look the other way. We are willing to continue the embargo against Cuba while, at the same time, we welcome China as a trading partner. We restore diplomatic relations and resume trade with communist Vietnam, a country we had a long and painful war against.
Another country on our list of enemies was Iran; however, though our relations with Iran have been and are still very strained, the U.S. government dropped the longtime ban on the import of luxury items from that country. How did we survive all those years without Iranian caviar, pistachios and carpets?
For years, magazines like Hispanic Business, Cigar Aficionado and many others, have dedicated special issues to Cuba and the need to end the embargo. In an article about Cuba published in 1994, Pierre Salinger, former press secretary to President Kennedy, wrote that late in his administration Kennedy was exploring the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba. As Salinger writes, “Embargoes and sanctions beef up the leaders and ruin the populations.”
The Castros are still in power. Cruz and Rubio, the Republican wannabe-presidents with ties to Cuba and many other Republicans in Congress continue to oppose lifting the embargo. I hope that Obama’s sign of friendship and reconciliation towards Cuba will be the first step to end this relentless aggression against the Cuban people. Watching the news about the Cubans protesting in Miami against Obama’s visit, it was clear that by now only a handful continue to control our foreign policy with regards to Cuba. Perhaps now Congress will realize that the economic and political power exerted by the Cuban exiles in Miami no longer exists and our “representatives” will no longer be afraid to lose their vote if they end the embargo.