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President Obama's Chance to Change Course on Cuba

Cesar Chelala

The new political landscape in Washington and Havana offers a unique opportunity to change a foreign policy decision that has been maintained for almost half a century and caused considerable suffering, the embargo against Cuba.

Although lifting the embargo -or recognizing the Cuban regime- requires congressional approval, President Obama, with the Democratic
majority in Congress should move that motion forward, even taking into account recalcitrant members of Congress who would try to oppose

Remarkably, the embargo has benefited no one except its target: Fidel Castro. It has allowed both Fidel and Raul Castro to maintain a strong grip on power, to use it as a rallying point against the United States, and as a scapegoat for the deprivations Cubans have endured since the embargo was imposed in 1962.

The efforts of those supporting the embargo -mostly in the Cuban exile community in Florida- as a way to undermine the Castros' regime have proven to be counterproductive, since they have not weakened their power nor turned the population against them. In addition, the
changing demographics has made the younger generation less obsessed with the regime and more open to negotiation.

As a result of the embargo, and for several years, there were severe restrictions in the export of medicines from the US to Cuba. In 1995, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States informed the U.S. Government that such activities were a violation of international law, and requested that the U.S. take immediate actions to exempt medicines from the embargo. According to the Cuban delegation to the U.N. the restrictions on medical products were "so extensive that they make such imports practically impossible."

In spite of these difficulties, Cuba has one of the best public health care systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Kaiser Family
Foundation, a U.S. non governmental organization that evaluated Cuba's health care system in 2000-2001, described Cuba as "a shining example of the power of public health to transform the health of an entire country by a commitment to prevention and by careful management of its medical resources."


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The embargo has been roundly condemned worldwide through several United Nations General Assembly annual votes. In the 2008 vote the
motion to keep the embargo was defeated by 185 against three: US, Israel and Palau, a Pacific Island of 21,000 people. George P. Schultz, who was Reagan's Secretary of State, has called the continuous U.S. embargo "insane."

As things stand now it is improbable that the US embargo will hurt Raul more than it hurt Fidel. Now is the perfect time to try a diplomatic approach that could lead to lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations between both countries. The process should consist of several steps to allow the development of trust, trade and lead to the free movement of people between the U.S. and Cuba.

So far, those who stand to lose the most in this situation have been ordinary Cubans, who enjoy good health care and education but none of
the advantages of living in an open society with access to goods that people in other countries take for granted.

All Cubans I spoke to on the island are eager for normal relations with the U.S. They feel emotionally closer to the Americans than they were to the Russians at the time they were receiving considerable help from the Russian government. One Cuban told me, half jokingly, "The
Cuban regime will be more easily defeated by iPods and jeans than by an American army."

Lifting the embargo on Cuba is a much less complex endeavor than ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or solving what is rapidly
becoming the Pakistani nightmare. Ending this measure would create an atmosphere of goodwill worldwide of unpredictable, but certainly good consequences for world peace. Persisting in a course of action that has been proven to be wrong for almost half a century is to accept the tyranny of failed ideas.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

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