This is the first part of a two part series on Cuban perspectives on the 50th anniversary of the embargo. Please read the second part here.
Earlier this month, The Cuban Triangle noted the inherent discrepancies in the system:
If you enjoy celebrating big old failures, the 50th anniversary of the US embargo against Cuba has just passed. Get yourself some rum and have a ball.
One feature of the embargo has been its changing justifications over time: a response to expropriations, an instrument with which to demand that Cuba break its ties to the Soviet bloc and its projection of military power outside its borders, a tool for pressure for the release of political prisoners. These days, the honest justification of it on the part of its partisans seems to be that it will one day serve as leverage over a future Cuban government when Fidel and Raul are no longer around.
Meanwhile, more than 300,000 Cuban Americans per year are traveling to an island they still consider in some measure to be home. Some are just visiting, many are investing at the family level.
Notes from the Exile Quarter, on the other hand, published a post titled “Don't end economic sanctions on Castro regime”, explaining:
Unfortunately the trade embargo on Cuba for all practical purposes was ended in 2000. Economic sanctions remain but since 2001 there has been over $3.5 billion dollars in trade between American businesses and the Cuban dictatorship. The human rights situation on the island has not improved.
These differences of opinion about an issue that is so complex and multi-layered got Global Voices Spanish Language Editor Firuzeh Shokooh-Valle and I wondering whether members of the Cuban diaspora in the United States and Cubans still living on the island could be at loggerheads over the effectiveness of the embargo. Is it still relevant? Is it accomplishing anything? Are the measures hurting the Cuban government or the Cuban people? So we decided to ask.
For the diaspora perspective, I interviewed Alberto de la Cruz, managing editor of babalu blog, which describes itself as “an island on the net without a bearded dictator” and routinely agitates for political and human rights freedoms on the island. This is the viewpoint that we'll focus on first (Alberto's interview follows, below). Then, to give you an idea of how Cubans on-island feel, Firuzeh will publish the second part of this post – an interview that she conducted with Elaine Diaz (full disclosure: she's a Global Voices contributor), who teaches at the University of Havana and blogs here [es].
Global Voices (GV): The US embargo on Cuba – probably the longest-running economic ban in history – recently turned 50! Supporters see it as a necessary measure against a communist government; critics say that the policy is a failure that is really not hurting the regime, but instead, the average Cuban. Where do you stand on the issue?
Alberto de la Cruz (AC): It is hard to argue the US embargo against the Castro dictatorship hurts the Cuban people when in 2010 (the latest figures available), the Cuban government imported over $400-million in food from the US. While the embargo limits trade, it allows food to be sold to the Cuban government on a cash basis. If that food is not reaching the average Cuban and is instead being sent to the Cuban military owned hotels and resorts to feed tourists, that is not because of the embargo, it is because of the Castro regime [which] ultimately controls the distribution of all food on the island.
It is interesting to note that none of those who suggest the trade embargo against the Castro dictatorship hurts only the average Cuban can explain why the vast majority of Cubans continue to live in abject poverty when the Castro government, according to their own figures, had over $8-billion dollars in imports in 2010. While Cubans struggle to feed their families, Cuban children are denied milk once they turn six, the most basic items are nearly impossible to find, and ration books are still in use.
In Cuba’s tourist hotels and resorts, which again, are owned by the Cuban military, there is no shortage of food, soap, milk, or anything else. If an embargo is hurting the Cuban people, it is the embargo placed upon them by the Castro regime.
What the US “embargo” actually does is prevent the Castro government from adding the US to its long list of debtors who are currently owed billions of dollars with no hope of getting paid in the foreseeable future. From that perspective, the embargo has been a phenomenal success. We are perhaps the only nation in the world that does business with Cuba who is not owed millions of dollars by a regime with a decades-long history of not honoring their financial commitments.
GV: What do you think the embargo has accomplished, if anything?
AC: In addition to precluding the US from becoming another victim of the Castro regime’s propensity for borrowing money and not paying it back, the US embargo is the only leverage the US has against the Castro dictatorship. As history indicates, the countries that have normalized relations and business dealings with the Castro government are severely limited in their ability to demand respect for human rights on the island. When these countries have attempted to pressure the Cuban dictatorship into stopping their repressive tactics, their economic interests on the island are immediately threatened. Therefore, their decision to promote respect for human rights in Cuba ceases to be a moral one and becomes an economic decision instead. Since, because of the embargo, the US has zero investments on the island that can be threatened, it can maintain its firm stance on human rights and democracy for the Cuban people.
GV: Do you think the embargo, as it stands now, is doing anything to improve the political or human rights situation in Cuba?
AC: In essence, yes. The US embargo has deprived the Castro dictatorship of hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars it can use to maintain and fuel its machine of repression. For the past fifty years, the Cuban regime has used hard currency provided by other countries – beginning with the former Soviet Union and now Venezuela – to fund its brutal, East German Stasi-trained State Security apparatus. By denying the Castro regime US dollars from American tourism, credit, and normalized trade, they have less cash to maintain, strengthen, and expand their repressive policies.
GV: What effect do you think the embargo has had on the Cuban economy and do you see a better alternative?
AC: Cuba and its economy are run and completely controlled by a totalitarian military dictatorship. The Castro regime has taken a country and an economy that was once productive and vibrant, and whose standard of living in 1958 surpassed that of some Western European nations, and has turned it into a third-world country. A better question, I believe, would be what effects the economic policies and decisions of the Castro government over the past five decades have had on the Cuban economy.
The only viable alternative that exists is for the Cuban people to rid themselves of the dictatorial regime that enslaves and represses them. History has shown that engagement with this brutal and criminal regime produces zero positive results. The entrenched dictatorship has no interest in true reform or limiting its power, let alone relinquishing it.
GV: How do you feel about the recent lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba and making remittances easier?
AC: The lifting of travel restrictions and increased remittances to Cuba from the US [has] been a financial boon for the Cuban dictatorship and has unleashed a wave of repression against Cuba’s opposition movement. In the two years since the Obama administration unilaterally relaxed sanctions against Cuba, the Castro regime’s cash reserves have grown by more than $2-billion, while politically motivated arrests on the island have increased almost threefold. Visiting American tourists on the island are led on Potemkin Village-like tours, denied any interaction with Cuba's democracy activists. In the end, American tourists visiting Cuba will provide the same help in fostering democracy on the island that the 2-million+ yearly tourists from other countries have had, which is to say, none.
GV: What have been some of the “creative” responses to the embargo from Cubans outside the island?
AC: Since the Obama administration unilaterally relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, Cuban exiles no longer have to come up with “creative” ways to evade the law. In the past, however, the most common method of circumventing US travel restrictions was to visit the island through a third country. The most popular were Mexico and the Bahamas, although Cubans living in the northern part of the US could also use Canada as an intermediary stop on their way to Cuba.
GV: Do you think there a generational shift in attitudes about the embargo for Cubans inside and outside the island?
AC: In regards to Cubans in exile, for almost two decades now, we have been hearing and reading about this community’s supposed generational shift in attitude regarding the US embargo on the Castro dictatorship. It seems that every year several polls are published showing a softening in the so-called “hard line and intransigent” stance against the Castro regime by Cuban exiles. However, while these polls claim to accurately gauge the sentiment amongst Cubans in the US, the most accurate and reliable poll, the voting booth, shows a different outcome. Year after year, election cycle after election cycle, Cuban exiles have overwhelmingly voted for representatives that echo a hard line approach towards the dictatorship in Havana.
In terms of Cubans on the island, I find it difficult to get an accurate reading on their opinions regarding the embargo. Cubans are forced to live in an information-deprived society and therefore, their attitudes are colored by the false reality created by the regime. For instance, the vast majority of Cubans on the island are not aware the US is one of the island’s major food suppliers, mainly because very few of them ever see any of the food shipped to Cuba from the US. Through no fault of their own, they are left to formulate opinions regarding the US embargo without knowing the facts. Personally, I would put more stock in any generational shift occurring in attitudes in Cuba towards the embargo if the population had access to all the information it needed to form an educated opinion.
GV: While we're on the topic of access to information, how has the embargo affected the Internet in Cuba?
AC: Since all “legitimate” internet access in Cuba is severely restricted by the Castro government, I cannot see how US policy plays any role in average Cubans accessing the internet. Consider the recently completed fiber-optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba offering improved internet access to the island. After connecting the cable, the Cuban regime immediately quashed any hopes of internet access for its citizens by declaring all internet access would be reserved for government entities only.
Moreover, in January of 2010, a Miami-based company, TeleCuba, was granted permission by US authorities to lay a fiber-optic cable between Key West and Havana, but according to reports, the Castro regime has refused to strike a deal with this company. Add to this the fact that American aid worker Alan Gross was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing Cubans with unfiltered Internet access and the obvious becomes more obvious: The Castro dictatorship is not interested in providing Cubans with unfiltered or unrestricted Internet access, regardless of US policy towards the island.
GV: Is the embargo an important issue for you in the upcoming US presidential elections? Why or why not?
AC: For me, personally, Cuba is an important issue in the upcoming US presidential elections. I would like to see a president that is committed to defending the human rights of the Cuban people and maintains a firm stance against a tyrannical regime just ninety miles from our shores. From a diplomatic perspective, the embargo remains a tool that can help an administration stand up to tyranny and defend human rights.
GV: Who would stand to benefit from a lifting of the embargo? And who would stand to lose?
AC: The first and foremost benefactor of any lifting of the embargo would be the Castro dictatorship. Such an act would provide an economic boon to the regime, flushing them with cash and political capital, which history has proven time and again they will use to perpetuate their iron-grip on power and maintain the Cuban people enslaved. The second benefactors would be US corporations who would be given the opportunity to strike deals with the Cuban government that would give them exclusivity in the marketplace and eliminate any competition normally found in a free marketplace. The Cuban consumers, as always, will receive little to no benefit, as the regime’s business deals with the rest of the world have clearly indicated.
The first and foremost loser would be the Cuban people and democracy activists on the island. With the Castro regime given a new lease on life with cash revenues and political clout, the government will be free to repress and quash any dissent with impunity, while maintaining the rest of the population enslaved. If the US finally bowed to the Castro regime and removed the embargo, there would be no leverage left to demand the Cuban government respect human rights. The US would become like Canada, Spain, or the European Union: another country or union more interested in protecting its economic interests in Cuba than protecting the human rights of the Cuban people.
A reminder to look out for Part 2 of this post, which will examine the embargo from the point of view of a Cuban blogger who lives in Havana.