Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cold War Attitudes in a Warming World

*** This is a post I wrote for my website, I thought I'd share it as well ***

After more than 40 years of embargo, the end of Fidel Castro's rule is approaching. We don't know when or how it will happen, or what shape Cuban politics will take, but we do know that the US government wants a hand in the succession process.

Strange, then, that there is very little public discussion over the participation our government should seek, and the aims we should advance. Perhaps it's assumed that our role will be subversive, ensuring the revolution crumbles and neo-liberal economic reforms, coupled with our sanctioned version of democracy, take its place. No doubt a large contingency believes this to be the only appropriate course. A sober look at the situation, however, suggests that the best strategy for the United States is to embrace the revolution, encouraging reform from within its framework.

Often our opposition to the current administration in Cuba is painted, and interpreted, as a fight against Fidel Castro, a fight on behalf of a Cuban people who are captives of their leader's ideology.

When President Bush discussed Cuban policy back in October 2007, his rhetoric again reinforced that point:

"The day is coming when the Cuban people will chart their own course for a better life. The day is coming when the Cuban people have the freedom they have awaited for so long."

He then described additional funding Congress had allotted for "Cuban democracy efforts." These efforts, Bush continued, were intended to help Cubans wrest their political freedom from a ruling class whose "grip on power is more important than the welfare of its people."

The thrust of the speech was clear: Cubans are a people in need of liberation, and the US government, as always, was working hard at the task. Everyone who supports the embargo, whether actively or passively, accepts that narrative.

But there are several problems with this interpretation.

Foremost, it's built on condescension towards the political will of the Cuban people. It must be understood that revolutions are not reducible to any one individual. The support of large segments of civil society was necessary to empower the movement in its formative years, and has bolstered it since it was institutionalized. Castro, though his fist is often iron, does not rule with it alone.

Many average Cuban citizens still consider themselves revolutionaries, and many who are discontented by their political situation have not sought, and do not want, US assistance.

Second, to act upon the assumption that Cubans yearn for democracy and neo-liberal reforms is both naive and dangerous. Even if large segments of the population had been sympathetic to our embargo, or were willing to forgive it once it was repealed, would they greet their new status within the free market favorably?

To attempt an answer, one should look at the social gains made by the revolution in the areas of education and health care. These areas have been prioritized under Castro, and their success is undeniable. No doubt, then, that a young Cuban living in the countryside, who until his "liberation" from the revolution was a recipient of free education and free access to medical care, would find his entry into the free market to be a painful birth.

The sense of entitlement instilled by the revolution would be left unfulfilled, social tensions would be great, and those who did not see immediate economic benefit from the dismantling of the revolution (and this would be the majority) would see little to celebrate, much to mourn.

Last, and perhaps most obviously, to paint the embargo as on behalf of the Cuban people is a ridiculous premise. As Pope John Paul II said, "Economic embargoes are always deplorable because they always harm those in greatest need." Indeed, in this case the brunt of the embargo has been borne by common Cubans.

As an example, one can view the early 90's, when the US government seized upon the opportunity presented by the collapse of Cuba's bulwark of support: the Soviet Union. Two pieces of US legislation -- the Torricelli Act and the Helms-Burton Act -- tightened the embargo, contributing to the most dire economic conditions of Castro's rule.

Cuban academics Vilma Hidalgo and Milagros Martinez described the effects on the diet of the average Cuban citizen:

in 1989 the availability of food per capita was 3,108 caloric units and 73 grams of protein, while in 1997 these figures were 2,480 and 51.7, respectively. This drastic change in consumption levels affected the health of the population, as both men and women experienced weight loss, epidemics of some diseases previously unknown in the country broke out, and the birth weight of babies declined.

No doubt the ruling class Bush spoke of were well-fed, an easily anticipated contradiction between the stated intentions and actual results of US efforts.

Self-interest has always motivated the US embargo against Cuba; the assertion of the Cold War good vs. evil mentality; the attempt to starve out a government that would not serve as a pawn to US wishes; the effort to woo the political support of the vocal anti-Castro exiles in Florida. And the list goes on.

But what has the embargo achieved? Castro is still in power. He is a cultural icon in Latin America, David to our Goliath. The model of government he has advanced in Cuba has been proven viable, able to survive in the bad graces of the world's superpower. And right in our backyard at that.

On the US side, the embargo underlines our hypocrisy. We trade with the People's Republic of China. We traded with the Soviet Union during its existence. Why not Cuba? Clearly there is an unhealthy grudge which the international community has recognized time and again; for 16 consecutive years the General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly against the embargo.

For the United States government to force its preferred economic and political system upon Cuba would not only be a move against self-determination, it would be yet another injustice done to a country that has already suffered enough at our hands. Dropping the embargo and demonstrating our willingness to work with the Cuban government is the logical way to advance democratic reform, would be a positive step towards repairing our image abroad, and would help us live up to the ideals we claim as a nation.

More importantly, it's our best means of helping Cubans.

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