The Crumbling U.S. Embargo on Cuba

When the first Pastors for Peace Friendship Caravan departed in 1992, it was initiated to defy the U.S. travel and trade embargo on Cuba that has been in place since 1962. The most difficult challenges to the Friendship Caravan were during the later years of the Bush administration when buses and humanitarian cargoes were detained or confiscated by U.S. Customs agents at the Mexican border under the most severe enforcements of the blockade. A test of the Obama administration’s intentions came when the twentieth Friendship Caravan crossed the U.S.-México border at McAllen, Texas on July 21, 2009. After undergoing inspection of its cargoes, all vehicles, material aid, and 130 caravanistas were allowed to leave the United States. This alone is uncommon because most departures by road from the United States into Mexico are not even stopped or inspected. Nevertheless, the change in enforcement is a significant departure from previous years. The U.S. embargo on Cuba is crumbling.

A previous Pastors for Peace Caravan school bus in Vedado, Havana: defying the U.S. blockade for eighteen years.

A previous Pastors for Peace Caravan school bus in Vedado, Havana: defying the U.S. blockade for eighteen years.

Ahead of the Organization of American States summit in April 2009, President Barack Obama announced that visits by Americans to Cuba will be allowed once annually instead of once every three years, and the $300 per quarter limit on remittances will be lifted – but only if they have relatives on the island nation. Restrictions on investment in Cuba will also be eased – but only in telecommunications. Obama has signalled his willingness to ease the 47-year-old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, but not yet for the rest of us. While still couched in the language of regime change, Obama’s overtures represent a ray of hope for breaking down the barriers that have separated Americans and Cubans and prevented them from learning from each other.

Meanwhile, the effects of the U.S. embargo (Cuba calls it a blockade) are much more intrusive than the mere absence of American goods. Patient monitors and CT scanners from Europe and Japan that have seen only a few years of use are often idled by the inability to procure assemblies or accessories that contain U.S. parts. Despite these difficulties, the Cuban health system guarantees every resident access to care, resulting in a life expectancy (78 years) equal to that of the United States. There are no denials of claims here, no patients turned away for lack of insurance.

Thousands of Cuban doctors and medical personnel continue to serve in countries ranging from Bolivia to Pakistan to South Africa. Meanwhile, Cuba brings in hundreds of new foreign students for medical school from poor countries and the United States alike, completely free of charge. And Cuba’s biotechnology industry is a leading-edge exporter of both genetically-engineered and low-cost generic drugs.

Yes, the dug-up roads are decaying. The crumbling houses are discolored with mildew. The sputtering cars are American antiques of the 1940s and 1950s, frozen in time, but kept running through miraculous Cuban ingenuity. That is the tunnel image most Americans have of Havana. The images are there along the fabled seaside Malecón, in Habana Centro, and in Habana Viejo, where most of the historical tourist attractions are located. But outlying suburbs like Miramar, smaller cities like Santa Clara or Sancti Spiritus, and even rural villages have houses and shops that are more modern and well kept, roads that are nicely paved, and newer motor vehicles from Europe, Canada, Japan, and China. It is just the inverse of unequal development in most other Latin American countries. Cuba has chosen to focus its finite resources on ensuring that everybody has housing first, and only afterwards renovating existing buildings for the eyes of foreign visitors. There are no foreclosures here, no tent cities of the homeless.

The U.S. notion that the embargo is needed to pressure Cuba to embrace “democracy” and ultimately expedite “regime change” is based on the assumption that the Cuban people have no say in the affairs of their country. In fact, people routinely chose representatives to municipal assemblies, which in turn elect members of the provincial assemblies, and in turn elect the 614 members of the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular (National Assembly of People’s Power). The constitution calls for the National Assembly to elect the State Council, and the State Council to elect the president. So while Cuban citizens do not directly elect the president and members of the National Assembly, they do so through a tiered pyramidal democratic structure that ensures greater accountability of each of each layer of representation to the layer below it because electors at each level are actually able to get to personally know those whom they are electing.

The Cuban electoral system is in effectively a one-party democracy in which candidates for elected office are pre-screened by a participatory nominating process. The U.S. electoral system is in essence a two-party dictatorship in which the two major parties and the media collude to systematically deny credibility and electability to any candidates of third parties, or even candidates within the two dominant parties who are outside of the “mainstream.” It is far from clear that one system is really more politically democratic or dictatorial than the other. While both systems are flawed (they both perpetuate incumbency and state power), it would be a gross misstatement to call one an unqualified “dictatorship” and the other an unconditional “democracy.”

On freedom of the press, Cuba is not a place where one can buy a foreign newspaper or magazine on the streets. But then neither is Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, readily available on the streets because it is largely distributed through the vast array of political, economic, and social organizations through which every Cuban citizen is engaged in one way or another. Freedom of the press is one area in which Cuba would do well to lift restrictions. Having survived the extraordinary stresses of the Special Period in the 1990s, Cuba can rest assured that allowing independent Cuban media and opening up to responsible news sources from Latin America and the world will not degrade, but rather invigorate, the public intellectual discourse, the perceived quality of life, and Cuba’s strength as a nation.

The distorted view most Americans have of Cuba is molded by their inability to visit Cuba to see for themselves. People in the United States and Cuba have much to learn from each other. In April 2009 a Congressional delegation, led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, visited Cuba to review policies on trade and cultural and academic exchanges. The same opportunity needs to be afforded to all Americans in order to formulate a rational national policy towards Cuba based on realism and mutual respect.

The international community of nations has spoken out against the U.S. embargo on trade and travel to Cuba through 17 consecutive years of resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly. With each passing year the United States government has become more and more politically isolated on this issue. The last vote on October 29, 2008 was 185 to 3 against the U.S. blockade, with 2 abstentions. Those opposed were the United States, Israel, and Palau. Palau, along with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia which abstained, are all former U.S. colonies that remain highly dependent on the U.S. economic and military umbrella. Palau, incidentally, is so dependent on the United States that when no other country on the planet would agree to take 17 Chinese Uighurs held in Guantánamo Bay as so-called “enemy combatants,” because no country wanted to legitimize the systematic U.S. denial of protections guaranteed to prisoners of war under international law, Palau agreed in June 2009 to take them after intense U.S. pressure. Only afterward did Albania, in no less desperate economic situation itself, ultimately relent to taking four of the 17 Uighurs.

Even the Cuban-American exile community, which has traditionally backed the U.S. embargo because their families lost properties in the 1959 Revolution, has been gradually shifting in preference to selectively lifting the embargo and travel restrictions to ease family visits and for the younger generation to rediscover the land of their parents. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has not posed any conceivable threat to the security of the United States.

On the contrary, the United States is harboring a Cuban-born Venezuelan man – Luis Posada Carriles – who has been convicted in absentia for various terrorist attacks and conspiracies in Latin America, including the 1976 bombing of Cubana Flight 455 that killed all 73 people on board. Detained in 2005-2007 for illegal presence in the United States, Carriles is now free. If President Obama is truly concerned about security and thwarting future terrorist attacks, he would move to extradite Carriles to Venezuela or Cuba, both of which have demanded that he face trial in their courts.

On the other hand, the Cuban Five (Los Cinco) – Fernando González, René González, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino – were arrested in 1998 for activities related to gathering intelligence on a number of militant Cuban-American exile groups, including Brothers to the Rescue, that have been accused of organizing illegal and often violent activities inside Cuba. The Five were convicted in 2001 on all 26 counts by a Federal District Court in Miami, where they could not possibly have received a fair trial. So far, the Obama administration has refused to reconsider the case, and, in fact, successfully pressured the Supreme Court to deny a review. If President Obama is truly interested in justice, he should reopen the case against the Cuban Five for independent review, and allow visits by family members from Cuba. If The Five’s only crime was thwarting terrorism, then they must be freed.

A parallel opportunity for rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba is arising out of acknowledgements by both the Bush and Obama administrations that harsh interrogation methods and torture were used at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, and President Obama’s announced intention of closing the prison within a year of taking office. In fact, the prison itself appears to violate the very terms of the lease agreement of February 23, 1903 that grants “the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.” One aspect of putting this dark period in U.S. human rights history behind us is to terminate the lease and return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba once the prison is closed. This will be another substantive gesture that the U.S. and Cuba can live together with mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty.

Having lifted the embargo just a little and let the Pastors for Peace Friendship Caravan through, President Obama needs to carry through on his promise of change by ending the U.S. embargo once and for all.

Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center. He writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India, and public health. He lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and spent time in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Captured by a Palestinian militia in 1973, he has first-hand experience of their internal workings. Read other articles by Sharat.

9 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Stephanie said on August 1st, 2009 at 7:27pm #

    Sharat, you have sited so many issues that would take ages to debate. I like what you have written and this should make one rethink why this embargo (blockade) is continuing. It serves no purpose – or is one being blinded yet again?

  2. William McLaughlin said on August 1st, 2009 at 9:48pm #

    What’s overlooked in the hypocrisy of the White House’s bullying insistence that Cuba shape up is the unconstitutional deprivation of the U.S. citizens’ right to free travel….why this does not inspire massive protest and legal action by the A.C.L.U. is beyond me.

  3. Lloyd said on August 2nd, 2009 at 5:21am #

    To take a longer perspective, it there had not been Operation Mongoose (and the Bay of Pigs) in 1962, there would not be the American Empire trying to rule the entire planet now.

  4. William McLaughlin said on August 2nd, 2009 at 7:10am #

    My name/email should be erased after my submission. Else anyone can enter anything using my name!

  5. beverly said on August 2nd, 2009 at 7:07pm #

    Even pre-Soviet Union collapse, Cuba NEVER posed a threat to the U.S. The Soviet Union didn’t even pose a threat. Like the modern WMDs, the communist threat was inflated to enrich corporate coffers, at that time the coffers of military contractors.

    Free press? It’s hilarious to hear U.S. pundits and politicians rant about the lack of free press in other nations when our so-called free press fails daily to provide citizens with the full story on all issues except those pertaining to celebrities, sex and/or drug revelations about politicians, and politically incorrect gaffes. Said failure is a product of being co-opted by those they report on as well as fear of not having a job if one actually practices real journalism. So much for being “free.”

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for Obama to do right by the Cubans. If he was the change agent he was purported to be, a simple stroke of his pen could grant clemency to the Cuban Five. Luis Carriles would have been extradicted to Cuba by now. Instead of nickel and diming tweaks of increased remittances and travel to Cuba, he would have lifted the embargo completely. A 40-year embargo on a tiny island of no threat to the U.S. – and that has not met its objective in all this time – is just as “stupid” as officer Crowley’s dust up with Harvard chum Gates. Further, opening more business opportunities with Cuba make good economic sense (even the dreaded US Chamber of Commerce favors lifting embargo) in this train wreck economy.

    Cuban citizens would benefit from access to other media along with more freedom for its indy media scene. However, worries about the Special Period of the 90s, covert infiltrators, and coup plotters aren’t off base today. Regardless of this administration’s kinder/gentler rhetoric, the imperialist agenda towards Latin America from previous years is alive and kicking.

  6. Josie Michel-Brüning said on August 3rd, 2009 at 10:31am #

    Thank you very much, dear Sharat, for your article!
    And also thank you very much to all comments!
    By the way, there are some other newspapers than “Granma” in Cuba: “Juventud rebelde” and “Trabajadores”, I had seen there.
    Quoting Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, one of the Cuban Five (2 life prison terms + 15 years), in an interview with Saul Landau by phone from his prison in victorville, when mentioning the attitude of the US government towards Cuba: “Cuba is the hell, but you are not allowed to visit it.” As a German woman being able to travel to Cuba occasionelly, I can tell you Cuba is beautiful and its people in their majority are well educated and self confident, and you need not fear for your life as in some other places, for instance in the USA.
    Please, everybody, join the campaign to free the Five.
    Please, visit and !
    Best wishes to all of you!

  7. Doug McDonald said on August 3rd, 2009 at 1:58pm #

    What you’ve written about Granma not being available to cubans in the streets is not so. I spend winters in Nueva Gerona, Isla de la Juventud and I buy a granma newspaper nearly every day. It sells for 20 centavos which is about 1 cent usd.
    Excellent article….if Obama was so busy with so many other really big issues, he might have time to reconsider what surely has to be done:
    1, drop the embargo
    2..lift all travel restrictionds to cuba for both ex pats and average aamericans
    3. close Guantanamo and return the base to Cuba.
    4. release the 5 and send them home in return for Cuba releasing political prisoners there.
    5. deal with Posada
    6. Abolish the Helms-Burton law.

  8. Josie Michel-Brüning said on August 4th, 2009 at 4:45am #

    Hi, Doug to whom do you refer when you want to insist that there are Granma available to Cubans in the streets.
    As for me, I wanted to say, that there are besides Granma Daily, as well as Granma Internacional (at least in Havanna) also other newspapers are available. May be, I didn’t find the correct words. Sorry for that.
    Apart from that, I agree with your suggestions. And as for Luis Posada Carriles he should be extradited to Venezuela.
    It is a ly, that he had to fear torture there. Under the government of Huga Chávez there is not torture in Venezuela any more, in the opposit to the times when Posada was a responsible member of the secret police (DISIP) in Venezuela during the 1970s. He personally was responsible for torture then.

  9. heyyou said on August 6th, 2009 at 6:00pm #

    I agree that Obama should move swiftly on this…….but most of all the reason why I love to visit Cuba? no obnoxious American tourists saying things like “hey gringo” to wait staff in restuarants and stuff like I hear when I visit other countries. I’ll be making a lot of trips before the American tourists start arriving.