Blog post by: Christian Martinez Lopez
December 17th 2014 will remain permanently engraved in diplomatic history as the day when the longest U.S. international conflict took its first steps towards reconciliation. A more than fifty year economic and political embargo on Cuba dating back to 1959 underwent significant changes, changes that would see the two countries put a half-century of disagreements behind them in what can be deemed as one of the more noteworthy achievements of the Obama administration. The gradual removal of the U.S. blockade is a healthy measure for both parties, and it is destined to be the catalyst for deep democratic changes in Cuba. Not only will the eventual removal of the embargo bolster Cuba’s economy, but it is an ideal way of applying pressure on the Castro regime to implement the democratic reforms that the United States has demanded for such a long time.
It is important to go over exactly what the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States entails. First, the US State Department will revise its designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. More importantly, the United States will make significant modifications that increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information between the two nations. Additionally, embassies, rather than interest sections, will be established in both Havana and Washington. “If any foreign policy has passed its expiration date, it is the US Cuba policy,” an Obama administration official told Business Insider. (1)
But the softening of the US-Cuba relationship has not come without its fair share of criticism. Conservative and GOP politicians across the United States have been quick to jump on the President’s decision to loosen the embargo. They argue that there will be no correlation between this renewed exchange of goods and services and the establishment of democracy in Cuba. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), both of Cuban heritage, along with a large part of the Cuban population in Florida have sprouted in protest against the imminent change of course of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. (2)
Now some of these widespread complaints have a valid foundation: an overwhelming amount of Cuban Americans in South Florida are families or at least come from families whose properties were confiscated upon the triumph of both the Cuban Revolution and Communism in the 1960’s and the emergence of Fidel Castro. Others fled the island in the 1990’s during Cuba’s “Special Period in Time of Peace” when the country’s economy nearly collapsed as a result of the dissolution of its primary trading partner and geopolitical ally: the Soviet Union. Looking back on the repercussions of both of these events and many more not mentioned, the Castro regime’s undemocratic policies and its inability to make the country’s economy live up to its potential have fostered discontent within Cuba. Unfortunately, this discontent has been manifested in the form mass migrations away from the island. While almost all of them have been illegal escapes, others have remained as illegal attempts to escape. Yes, numerous Cubans cannot claim to have been successful in their search for opportunity. Some are intercepted by coast guards, others drown in the waters of the Atlantic, while the rest simply disappear in the process.
Perhaps no story better encapsulates the struggle of Cubans to flee the island than the tale of then 7-year old Elian Gonzalez, known popularly since then as the “Elian Gonzalez Affair.” Elian fled with his mother and other Cuban fugitives on their way to Miami in 2000. Tragically, little Elian’s mother drowned on their way through the 90 miles that separate the shores of Cuba and Florida. Miraculously, Elian Gonzalez survived, rescued by fishermen, and was kept in Miami with his mother’s relatives who had also fled the island years before. Elian’s father, however, remained in Cuba and demanded that his son be returned to him. His demands soon developed into a political affair, a heated controversy between the governments of Cuba and the United States as well as the Gonzalez’s father, his maternal relatives, and the Cuban American Community of Miami. Under the Clinton administration, US Federal Agents eventually returned Elian to his father. (3)
Now Elian’s story is relevant to this discussion not only because of how it sheds light on Cuba’s undemocratic domestic policies; but mostly because it exposes the shortcomings and perhaps unintended consequences of the embargo and all that has come with it. A clear example is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996 (CAA), an extraordinarily generous immigration relief program that incentivizes Cuban migration to the United States. (4) Its main achievements? Separating thousands of families while fostering political instability within the Caribbean island. The Elian Gonzalez Affair epitomizes exactly what and how much the embargo on Cuba has achieved, not in terms of weakening the Castro regime, but just the opposite. In fact, the embargo has become a tool for the Castro regime as it has served as an excuse for the country’s economic shortcomings and weak human rights record. The US embargo on Cuba has become an inadvertent attack on the Cuban people, rather than a policy to further advance US interests in the country. The controversy of Elian reflects how much the Cuban people, and not its political leaders, have been negatively impacted by the embargo. This is why I and so many more fellow Cubans stand strong against the embargo. Not only is it “expired” as mentioned by the Obama administration, but it harms innocent people. It separates families and fosters hate between two very different sectors of the Cuban people: those who believe in the system and those who simply do not. The embargo has divided the constituents of a nation that is slowly becoming increasingly bipartisan. It is not bipartisanism generated through democracy, but one created by anti-patriotic feelings, political cynicism, and by immigration rules that divide the country in so many ways.
December 17th 2014 was the first step to put an end to all those years of suffering between the two sides. The embargo will no longer serve Cuba’s Communist Party as an excuse, and free interaction between the two states will at least light some sparks in advancing Cuba’s search for development. Fifty years is enough for both sides to realize certain measures must be changed once they no longer serve their purpose. The purpose should be to help the people and avoid becoming a part of this aforementioned political cynicism.
In this important process of change, however, Cuba has important achievements to conserve. What it has accomplished in the areas of education, with a 99% literacy rate, and health care, with the lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas, are admirable feats that must not be forgotten nor left behind in this imminent revolution. (5) If Cuba is able to maintain its existing equality, compartmentalize it with freedom, while simultaneously managing to thrive as an open economy under the values of democracy and human rights, then it is only a matter of time before the country lives up to its potential as the emerging power of the Caribbean. For one thing, we know that democratic transition is always easier with a highly educated workforce and a strong scientific research system. Possibility for a democratic opening in Cuba, given these aforementioned advantages, could turn out to be smoother than in its Latin American counterparts, however only time will tell whether this ‘opening’ comes in the time and proportions that the country needs.