Cuba: Land of the eternal embargo
Havana, Cuba — December 17, 2014
“Bienvenido, amigo! Que país?”
A man in a tuxedo invites me into an opulent Old Havana hotel lobby. The man’s Victorian-era formal attire seems comical in the tropical Havana heat. I am tempted to label him a huckster and feign deafness. The warmth in his voice lowers my guard.
His demeanor, at first stoic, suddenly morphs. A grand smile spreads across his face and he appears ready to jump up and down like a rambunctious school boy.
“Come inside! Please! Have you heard?!”
I hesitate, but decide to follow him. He switches the television to CNN. Then I see it.
A chill shoots down my spine. Despite the languid breeze blowing in from outside, I feel goose-bumps. Is this a joke? Cuban propaganda?
I hear Obama declare US policy toward Cuba “outdated”. He continues, “Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world.”
I came to Cuba to write about the impact of the US embargo. Might things truly be changing after fifty years of impasse? Was change even a good thing?
Earlier that morning an old Cuban gentleman exhorted me to “watch the noon address.” Thinking it was nothing more than typical daily propaganda, I dismissed him.
I later overheard a Cuban tour guide in the Revolutionary Museum tell a group of Americans that “they could be the first to bring Cuban cigars to America!” I assumed this was his ruse to hustle Americans into buying fake Cohibas.
Back at the hotel, I see Marco Rubio on CNN claiming that Obama was ruining America, I now know the news is real.
The tuxedo-clad bartender can barely contain himself. He gushes, “It is wonderful news. It will take time, but this will change everything.”
Later that evening, a middle-aged Cuban man asks me my nationality. Upon telling him that I’m American, he shakes my hand so vigorously that I wince. He proceeds to tell me that he is overjoyed. “My wife cried. I called my friends in the US. They cried. It is wonderful news. For 50 years, we have suffered. It makes no sense. Hopefully things will truly change now.”
For the remainder of the week I often hear “Viva America!” and “Viva Obama!” Obama better not be a light-weight given how many Cubans want to send him mojitos.
Why an embargo?
In 1959, a rebel movement led by Fidel Castro overthrew the unpopular dictator Fulgencio Batista. Although Americans previously backed Batista, they also initially backed Castro. American support for the revolution proved short-lived, ending once Castro legalized communism. America first embargoed Cuba in 1960 and extended the embargo in 1962 to include food and medicine. In a show of true patriotism, President Kennedy asked his press secretary to personally import 1,200 Cuban cigars immediately before the embargo took effect.
Castro soon signed a commercial agreement with the Soviets. Soon after, Americans orchestrated the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro. The next year brought the Cuban Missile Crisis. Relations deteriorated to new lows. Since the early 60s, the American government reportedly made up to six hundred assassination attempts on Castro.
Although various US administrations alternately tightened and loosened the embargo, it remained largely unchanged from its inception for over fifty years, holding the dubious honor as the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.
What the embargo has (not) accomplished
Walking the streets of Havana, I am struck by the ornate colonial buildings. While stunning, they literally collapse on a daily basis. Cubans call Havana the “city in need of a million gallons of paint.” Classic American cars from the 50s, held together by little more than duct tape and love fill the streets. Although over two million Cubans call Havana home, the roads feel uncongested – more a function of a lack of cars than thoughtful urban planning.
These physical manifestations symbolize the spiritual state of the country: beautiful, but struggling immensely.
Prospects have improved since the early 90s when the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsidies threatened to starve the country. In three years the average Cuban lost twenty pounds. Today remittances from abroad, Venezuelan oil, and tourism keep the economy afloat.
Yet, shortages and hardships persist. International groups blame the embargo for everything from a lack of access to medicine to food shortages. While Cuba’s medical system enjoys a sterling reputation abroad, every Cuban I meet complains about long waits, medicine shortages, and the necessity of paying bribes to receive care.
One Cuban entrepreneur tells me, “It’s very expensive to buy anything in Cuba. We need to import everything from far away because of embargo.” Even at private stores, basics like eggs are in short supply. As a tourist with foreign currency, it meant no flan for dessert – but for many Cubans, it means constantly worrying about their next meal.
Cubans repeatedly tell me that the embargo gives the Castros a perfect scapegoat. One Cuban explains, “Every day, reports are released saying how much the embargo hurts Cuba, what GDP would be without it.” Another chimes in, “The government tells us that the embargo causes high prices, shortages, unemployment – basically everything bad except the common cold.”
While many Cubans still respect Fidel, most do not believe the government is working. As one shares, “The engagement with America is great news. But it will be even better news once the Castros are gone. This change in policy is a good first step.”
A less optimistic view
The stated intent of the US embargo is to force the Cuban government, namely the Castros, to democratize and end human rights abuses.
Yet, many parties both inside and outside of Cuba believe otherwise.
Many cite the large Cuban-American community in Miami as the primary reason the embargo persists. It is not the entire community, but rather an outspoken group of older Cuban-Americans who fled immediately after the revolution. They lost the most and hold the greatest grudge against the Castros. This small group seemingly wields a disproportionate impact over US foreign policy on Cuba.
Cubans in Cuba tend to not have much lost love for this group. One taxi driver steamed, “It’s the Cuban-American mafia in Miami that continues to profit off the embargo and will try to keep us isolated forever. They have no family or friends left here – they are only motivated by retribution and greed. They also dominate investment from abroad since only they can send money from America.”
It seems odd that the US not only has diplomatic relations with, but often actively supports, dictatorial countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It simultaneously continues the embargo against Cuba. It feels hypocritical to cozy up to dictators across the world with resources while maintaining punitive measures against a small, resource bare island next door.
Why can Americans take government-controlled propaganda tours to North Korea but not freely drink a mojito in Havana?
US allies and trading parties like Turkey and China continues to jail scores of reporters, yet an embargo on either does not seem imminent.
Although the Cuban government’s disregard for human rights is ostensibly one of the main reasons for the embargo, human rights groups oppose the embargo, believing it hurts civilians more than the government. Human Rights Watch says the embargo has “failed to improve human rights in Cuba and caused considerable harm for the Cuban people” while Amnesty International decries the embargo’s “negative impact on the economic and social rights of the Cuban population, affecting in particular the most vulnerable sectors of society.”
Perhaps most hypocritical is the notorious and still active Guantanamo Bay. Many Cubans wonder how America can claim the upper hand on human rights while hosting a site where prisoners are held without trial and tortured on the very island it condemns.
The UN general assembly has passed a resolution condemning the U.S. Embargo of Cuba every year since 1992. In 2010, they voted 187-2, with only the United States and Israel in opposition. The EU fully normalized relations with Cuba after Fidel’s resignation in 2008.
Does the United States know something that the rest of the world does not – or do we simply have our heads in the sand? It’s frustrating how politics and rhetoric can often trump pragmatism and reality.