Thursday, November 8, 2007

We Debate the Embargo

I was listening to Radio Mambi yesterday, when all of a sudden everybody's three favorite members of Congress (Ileana, Lincoln and Mario) called in. (What a surprise!) It's been two weeks since President Bush gave his Cuba speech, and Mario Diaz-Balart just couldn't help but recall how fantastic it was. It will go down in history just like Reagan's "Tear down this Wall!" speech says Mario. (What a vision!) No question, Mario will be telling his grand-kids about that glorious day on October 24, 2007, when President Bush heralded the end of the evil Cuban regime.

Back in reality, a few days after that magnificent monologue of the 24th, the pages of the Orlando Sentinel was preparing for a debate. To-the-point commentator George Diaz kicked it off on the 26th by writing that Bush's "[t]ough talk only gives Castro more ammunition to load the gun, point it at the U.S. and launch into one of his infamous diatribes... Cuba vs. the U.S. has been the longest-running dysfunctional relationship in modern history, with our condolences to Pamela Anderson and her slew of soulmates... Playing tough hombre with Castro only fuels his arrogance and drives the Cuban people toward further hatred/distrust of the U.S."

On the 31st, Paolo Spadoni, who has written extensively [PDF] on the economic ties between the US and Cuba (arguing well that the US continues to be its own worst enemy in respect to its sanctions on the island), added his thoughts to the Sentinel on Bush's speech.

"Indeed, coming from a leader who has neglected the will of the international community for years, Bush's calls for a Cuba democracy fund will likely fall on deaf ears... On Tuesday [Oct. 30], the United Nations General Assembly held its annual vote on U.S. economic sanctions with respect to Cuba and overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for an end to the 45-year-old embargo and objecting to U.S. laws and regulations compelling third countries to adhere to it... The reality is that many countries share U.S. concerns for democratic changes on the island but disagree with Washington over the best course of action to stimulate those changes... In short, if the White House is serious in its attempt to reach out to other countries, the appropriate way to proceed would be to devise a foreign policy that is more in line with the position of the rest of the world and less driven by domestic political considerations."

By Nov. 1st, surely after having read the various published commentaries on Bush's speech, the Sentinel decided to state their own position.

"The root of the anger and angst is a trade embargo now approaching a half-century. Nobody wants to blink first and make any concessions, all while blindly ignoring the best interests of each country... The next administration needs to dangle incentives such as access to international trade organizations and lifting the restrictive rules for travel and remittances. Doing so would allow the U.S. to strategically put all the pressure on Mr. Castro or, eventually, his successor... The new administration can offer sensible compromises in return for reforms in Cuba... It's all about inclusion, not isolation... The U.S. has been there, done that for nearly five decades. Common sense says it's time for the U.S. to bury the embargo, an ideological dinosaur that lost its roar long ago."

Obviously, these comments did not please some readers. Two letters to the Sentinel were published on the Tuesday [Nov. 6], one saying:

"In the past, multiple efforts made by the world community -- trading, foreign investing (billions of dollars in the tourist industry), cultural exchanges, visits by students, influential personalities, world leaders and more -- have brought no political reforms or even economic benefits to the enslaved people on the island... Are we to reward a tyrant who has no respect for human rights, property rights or human dignity and the rule of law? And also a man who supports and harbors world terrorists?... If the rest of the world decides to perpetuate the Castros' criminal regime by expressing its solidarity with the dictator and its antipathy toward the United States, too bad. We -- the 'shrinking' Cuban-American 'hard-liners' -- are very proud of the position taken by the president of our beloved United States of America."

The other:

"After reading about easing the isolation of Cuba by the United States, I came to the conclusion that your Editorial Board does not have a clear picture on the reality of the Cuban situation... There is a group of elites that have no desire to change the status quo. These are the Castros' close associates, and they enjoy all of the comforts of a modern society; they travel all over the world and have bank accounts in Switzerland. They realize that the end of the Castro regime will mean the end of their lifestyle, not to mention the likely retribution for all of the crimes committed against the Cuban people... With or without the embargo, change will not come to Cuba as long as the Castros and their accomplices continue to hold that country hostage."

To top it off, Manuel J. Coto, a urologist and long-time letter-writer and commentator to the Sentinel, added his thoughts yesterday:

"You are correct when you say the embargo provides Castro with a convenient boogeyman. But I would ask this: If the embargo were lifted, would we suddenly stop being the boogeyman?... I doubt that. The United Nations exists because of our generous funding -- and our Manhattan real estate -- and we have been its most reliable boogeyman, on bigger issues than Cuba, for decades... Ah, but we must appease the 'international community.' As your guest columnist Paolo Spadoni decreed, President Bush must create a policy that is 'more in line with the rest of the world.' Why? Aren't we entitled to our own position?...But since you're in the business of printing 'other views,' here's what I'd like to see: something historic. A true embargo, backed by the same outrage reserved for other brutal regimes in our collective past -- a policy more in line with how the world handled, say, apartheid in South Africa or Augusto Pinochet's Chile or Adolf Hitler's Germany... One of the commentaries grudgingly mentioned that President Bush is the leader of the Free World. And, yes, our next president will hold the same power. Let's ask the 'community' to rally behind its leader, no matter what he (or she) demands of Cuba."

Coto has been writing letters and special columns for the Orlando Sentinel since the early 90's, and has consistently assumed a hard-line position on Cuba. In 1997, he was opposed to the Pope's planned visit to the island.

"I am against the pope going to Cuba. Even more, I am against any of us going there during his visit. But as I witness the hypocrisy of this world, I can only hope that the pope will arrive in Havana with a miracle. I can only hope that, when he kisses the Cuban soil, he remembers his native country and he does for Cuba what he did for Poland. God save Cuba!"*

But, aside from a perceived arrogance, Coto understands well that the US embargo has not been effective like the other sanctions he mentions from history. Yesterday, he correctly stated that "[a]n equal share of the blame for the 'invisible embargo' goes to the exile community... for funding the [Cuban] government through remittances to families on the island." In this case he agrees with Spadoni, who in 2004 brilliantly argued [PDF] that "the United States has played and continues to play quite an important role in the Cuban economy. More specifically, significant amounts of hard currency have been channeled into the Cuban economy through U.S. visitors (especially Cuban-Americans), remittances sent by Cuban exiles to their families on the island, U.S. telecommunications payments to Cuba, U.S. food exports (sold in government-owned dollar stores), and U.S. investors who hold publicly traded shares of major foreign firms engaged in business activities with the government of Fidel Castro."

Many hard-liners know this truth, so they rationalize and say that the US embargo "has never truly existed." So, why do they fiercely defend it? In my opinion, the answer reveals an important aspect of being a hard-liner (be it against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, etc.). As Jaime Suchlicki, Emilio Bacardi Moreau professor of History and Director of UM's prestigious Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, put it in 2000 [PDF]:

"The lifting of the embargo now will be an important psychological victory for Castro. It would be interpreted as a defeat for U.S. policy and as an enforced acceptance of the Castro regime as a permanent neighbor in the Caribbean."

Coto, in 1997, came to the same conclusions:

"The only reason Castro wants so desperately to lift the embargo is that it would be his final victory over the United States. He would be the David who finally conquered Goliath. Lifting the embargo would be a colossal political defeat for the United States."*

I agree with the Sentinel editorial when they say that "the root of anger and angst" lies in the US embargo, which undoubtedly resonated on both sides. Surely, there are other important psychological elements here, such as the collective Cuban and Cuban exile memory, but this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the US/Cuba conflict: a perceived defeat, by those who have wronged us.

Truly a traumatic obstacle, but not insurmountable. Our moral conscience should rise above our short-term satisfactions, and be willing to face a higher moral duty where opposing sides settle their differences, making a real sacrifice for the sake of future generations.

[Watch video of opposing views on the US embargo, courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel, featuring History professor Luis Martínez-Fernández Ph.D., and Urologist Manuel J. Coto M.D.]

*Orlando Sentinel, November 23, 1997, "Only a Miracle Can Save Cuba" by Manuel J. Coto

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