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Missing the Boat on Cuba

On one of my visits to Cuba on UN-sponsored health-related missions I received one of my most useful foreign policy lessons from a young Cuban. On learning that my group came from the U.S., he told us, "Americans don't understand Cuban reality. They can get more changes in Cuba with Levi jeans than with an armed invasion."

His commonsensical reflection is in stark contrast with the U.S. government Cuban policy. The election of president Obama raised hopes that there would be a dramatic change of policy towards Cuba. After all, in April of 2009 he had said that it was time to end "old ideologies and stale debates."

The recent release by Havana of 20 political prisoners and its promise that it would release 32 more hasn't elicited a commensurate reaction from the U.S. At the same time, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban Parliament, declared that Cuba would later release all political prisoners not guilty of criminal acts. This had been one of the most critical demands of the U.S. government.

However, with the same passion that an old person still feels for a youthful love affair, the U.S. government has persisted in a policy that has brought it only derision, particularly in Latin America. The lack of benefits has been of no concern to several U.S. administrations.

Except for the U.S., the whole world perceives that Cuban policies have remained unchanged in the face of the 50 year-old embargo; nor has the embargo improved the quality of Cuban lives. Instead, it has brought enormous hardships to the Cuban people and allowed the Castro brothers to exert tighter control on the population.

Much can certainly be blamed on the Cuban government, such as repression and imprisonment of political dissenters and economic policies that have only exacerbated the Cubans' difficult situation, many living from remittances of relatives overseas. But these policies are not worse than similar or even more punishing policies on countries such as China, with which the U.S. has normal trade relations.

Miguel Angel Moratinos, Spain's Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently declared in Madrid that the release of Cuban prisoners may very well lead to a significant change of the European Union's policies towards Havana. He also stated, "We will change the European Union shared position on Cuba and we expect that this will lead to a lifting of the U.S. blockade of that country."

The Cuban government has already participated in more than 200 joint ventures with foreign corporations, although none of them is American. At the same time, there are also offices and representatives in Havana of over 500 companies from around the world. U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba reached a peak of $710 million in 2008 a small amount compared to potential sales under regular conditions. Representative Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee is supporting a bill, now making the rounds in Congress, which would normalize trade with Cuba and end the embargo.

Arguably, Florida anti-Castro community would be incensed by such a change and the president would lose support of some important legislators. However, the younger Cuban Americans don't share the older generation opinion of the conflict with Havana. Should the administration take decisive action to end the embargo it may gain the President some significant support, once its advantages become clear.

Cubans would not be the only ones to benefit. At a time of scarce and expensive energy resources, a new estimate by Cubapetróleo (CUPET) raises the oil off its shores to 20 billion bbl. in Cuba's northwest coast. Even a smaller amount could contribute to alleviate U.S. energy needs.

To persist on the wrong course of action, one that hasn't produced any significant results in 50 years is like following a sophomoric policy regardless of the suffering it has caused the Cuban people. It is an inexcusable policy for a superpower. 

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César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.

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