The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba is a fiction, a fraud, a failure and has been for a long time. It’s a Potemkin Village embargo. But it has served the purposes of both Washington and Havana.
When it was imposed more than half a century ago, there were legitimate reasons: the seizure of numerous U.S.-owned properties by the regime and the realization that Fidel Castro was a Caribbean-style Communist who had cozied up to the Soviet Union.
The embargo’s goal was to bring down Fidel or force him to the political middle by denying Cuba U.S. dollars, trade, investment and products. But more than half a century later, the Castro brothers remain in power and have shrewdly used the embargo — el bloqueo — as an excuse for their legion of economic and social failures.
The old oligarchs who fled Cuba — like sugar baron Alfy Fanjul, and more about him later — were replaced by new ones, members of the Communist Party and Cuba’s military. Then as now, they live fairly well. The New York Times ran a front-page story the other day about a new gated community in Havana that houses the new oligarchs and favored others.
The egalitarian “New Man” Fidel promised to create apparently deserves a nice place to live, apart from the riff-raff. The walled-off compound includes a movie theater, restaurants and retail shops where I bet residents can buy U.S.-made products.
For regular Cubans with family in the United States who send or bring them money, some U.S.-made products are available at premium prices in state-run dollar stores. How curious, Cuba disdains capitalism except when it’s the capitalist. Fledgling Cuban capitalists get their inventory from American cousins who tote the goods to Cuba on chartered flights or send it by freighter. Some embargo!
Web sites in Canada and elsewhere outside the United States will, for a hefty fee, deliver food, refrigerators or a flat-screen TV to any address on the island. For Cubans without such recourse to dollars, however, life is a daily struggle for adequate housing, food and transportation, not to mention the right to freely speak one’s mind or take part in organized dissent.
When South American leaders held a summit in Havana recently, more than 1,000 Cuban human-rights activists and dissidents were rounded up, hounded, harrassed or held by police in detention. Cuba’s most visible and vocal dissidents, like Jose Luis García (”Atunez”) and Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, were subjected to especially harsh treatment. Is there anywhere else in the hemisphere where a citizen can be arrested for the crime of “dangerousness”? He or she can in Cuba.
Yet, this is the country in which a majority of Americans — and even more Floridians — now say they want to normalize relations and “engage directly.” I understand the sentiment and to some degree share it. President Obama knows policy this country has pursued for half a century hasn’t produced the desired result — a free and democratic Cuba.
So inventive Americans have found ways around the stated policy. Last year, about 100,000 Americans traveled to Cuba legally on “people-to-people” trips that are little more than thinly disguised tourism. And who knows how many more U.S. citizens who sipped mojitos on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional got there illegally through Cancun or other gateway cities where U.S. passports are conveniently not stamped by Cuban authorities?
The survey published last week by the Atlantic Council, which will be discussed Wednesday morning at the Biltmore Hotel, is proof that a majority of Americans are ready to see more U.S. interaction with Cuba.
Alfy Fanjul of Palm Beach admits that he’s been to Cuba twice in the last year and says he’d like to “plant the family flag” there again, if he can work it out with the Castro government. You wonder if that means planting the flag on the thousands of acres of sugar land his family once owned.
I suspect part of Fanjul’s and other business interests’ desire to engage with Cuba is spurred by news that the European Union is about to negotiate improved relations with Havana. Which will lead to new business deals.
But I don’t expect Raúl Castro and his minions to make any significant concessions to the E.U. on free elections, free speech, political prisoners or human rights. Spain, France, Italy, Canada and other democratic countries have been doing business in Cuba for years, and it hasn’t changed Cuba’s repressive policies. If anything, the noose seems to have tightened as the Castros age.
That’s why the U.S. embargo should stay in place. Fiction or not, it should be lifted only in return for something major from Cuba — the democratic reforms codified in the Helms-Burton law.
If that means no “direct engagement” until the Castros are dead, so be it.