I do not have any radical friends, although I do have friends with radically different ideas as to how to deal with Cuba. Much of the debate focuses on the embargo and how it affects making positive change in the communist country.
A new push-poll by the Atlantic Council of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center shows that 56 percent of Americans nationwide, and 63 percent in Florida, agree with “normalizing relations or engaging directly” with the Cuban government. Yet when the question referenced Castro’s human-rights abuses, the support for increased engagement fell dramatically, particularly in Florida, to 43 percent.
Our relationship with Cuba is complex and constantly tested. Nearly all running for political office must define their position on the embargo, and the ones who win are usually the ones who say they support the embargo. At the same time, people-to-people diplomacy continues to grow. Can more be done to bring change to a country where the Castro family has controlled virtually all daily life since 1959?
There is no easy answer.
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Since its inception, the Castro revolution has been ruthless and bloody. From the beginning, political detentions and murder were institutionalized. Thousands of opposition leaders, young and old, were held without trial and summarily executed at the infamous paredón. Families were divided when the government ordered young girls and boys to leave their homes and work in the fields; freedom of speech, press and worship was revoked, and then came the tragedy of the Bay of Pigs, followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis during the height of the Cold War, which helped cement the Castro regime.
Everyone had to surrender to the revolution or face imprisonment, death or, if lucky, expulsion. Foreigners faced the same as all properties and corporations were surreptitiously confiscated. The romantic rebel, as The New York Times depicted Fidel at the time, was a myth, and he was condemned.
The Castro brothers changed their tactics with dissenters, harassing and torturing them, but not executing as before. Those who wanted to leave were allowed, especially the younger members of the middle class who could someday become a real political threat to Castro from within. Back then, they were in their 20s. Today they are the ones who mostly populate what is known as the traditional exile community, the ones who remember life in Cuba before 1959. To this day, this group is feared and loathed by Castro’s mafia, and many support the embargo.
Enacted in February 1962, the embargo was a response to Cuba’s illegal confiscations of U.S. businesses and properties without compensation and Castro’s conversion of Cuba into a military base for the Soviets, edging the world closer to a nuclear war.
For decades Fidel has threatened U.S. national security, destabilizing governments in Latin America and fighting wars in Africa. It is still categorized as a sponsor of state terrorism because it actively supports terrorists. Although many in the United States might not take Cuba’s government seriously, Fidel Castro does take the United States seriously, cultivating spies, including Ana Belen Montes, a former senior analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency. Intelligence experts believe her to be one of the most damaging spies in recent history.
Has Cuban policy changed enough for the United States to reconsider drawing the Cuban government closer? We could ask American contractor Alan Gross, who is being held hostage because the United States will not trade convicted Cuban spies for him or the Damas de Blanco, who are badgered and beaten as they practice civil disobedience on the way to church. This is, after all, the same Cuban leadership that ordered the shootdown of unarmed civilian planes in 1996 in international water, murdering three Americans and one legal resident. It is impossible to respect a government that does not respect its own people, let alone unarmed civilians. That does not mean that we ignore the Cuban people — on this we all agree.
There are real and meaningful programs that are going on today that help the people on the island without directly enriching the dictatorship. Prematurely lifting the embargo, however, will enrich the Cuban government with much needed revenue and access to international credits that will benefit the economy that is run by the military. The Cuban government has always been in control of the relationship with the United States. But before anything else can change, the regime must first change its relationship with its own people. It is the right thing to do.