A Unique Opportunity to Normalize U.S.-Cuba Ties
Why is the time ripe for the Obama Administration to improve U.S. relations with Cuba?
- In the UN General Assembly, no country in the world — with the exception of the United States, Israel and the Marshall Islands — supports the embargo against Cuba.
- The embargo ends up fostering more hate and mistrust of the U.S. government than of the Cuban government.
- The United States has been flying in the face of world opinion on the Cuba issue.
Several years ago, during my first visit to Cuba to attend a health policy-related meeting, I witnessed something unusual. As friends and I walked into the Bodeguita del Medio — a traditional restaurant famous for the number of illustrious visitors who had dined there over the years (Hemingway was a frequent patron) — a young Cuban man was discreetly asked to leave.
Seeing my friends and me, and realizing we weren’t Cubans, he began ranting against government restrictions on Cubans. “I have money to spend here,” he told us. “But they prefer to have foreigners eat and spend their money here. I am fed up with this regime.”
As we were observing the scene, he asked us, “Do you see something in that corner?”
“Yes,” we said, “there is a man standing there.”
“You are wrong,” he replied. “He is not a man. That’s a gigantic ear listening to everything I say to you. But I don’t care. I am so sick and tired of this situation.”
In those few minutes, I got a first-hand sense of the problems besieging Cuban society: the need for foreign money, the oppressive nature of the regime and the dissatisfaction of the country's youth. These impressions were later confirmed during another visit to the island when I headed a UN mission to assess the progress of Cuban scientists in developing interferon, an antiviral substance.
Highlighting the Cuban government’s shortcomings, however, is in no way to deny its achievements. During my last visit, I met Fidel Castro. Although we didn’t raise any political issues in our conversation, I was able to assess his enormous interest in — and knowledge of — health issues. This interest and knowledge underlies his government’s achievements in health and education.
Cuba, for all its other faults and drawbacks, is in the forefront of both fields when compared to other Latin American countries. And in some areas, it is on par with the United States. This progress, however, has been hindered by an unnecessary and ineffective embargo against the country, a situation that has cost the United States materially.
The embargo has also hurt U.S. prestige among Latin American governments, which consider it a violation of a fellow Latin nation’s rights and sovereignty.
There is no doubt that political pressure from the powerful Cuban exile community in Florida has been an important factor in maintaining the U.S. embargo. However, the descendants of that immigrant generation at long last have a more nuanced view of the Cuban regime.
In particular, they have seen the damage caused by decades of antagonism between both countries — and are eager for more amicable relations between them.
While Cubans have always been clear about their admiration for the American people — which I have observed first-hand during my visits to the island — the embargo ends up fostering more hate and mistrust of the U.S. government than of the Cuban government. Moreover, the United States has been flying in the face of world opinion on the Cuba issue.
If votes in the UN General Assembly are a test, no country in the world — with the exception of the United States, Israel and the Marshall Islands — supports the embargo.
President Barack Obama has wisely eased restrictions on travel to the island by Cubans and their descendants. He should now strengthen that approach through an intense exchange of scientists, doctors, artists and ordinary citizens.
The effect would be dramatic in neutralizing the atmosphere of antagonism and should lead to a lifting of the embargo and the normalization of relations between both countries.
Cuba's trade with the United States now amounts to half a billion dollars a year — a negligible amount that is equivalent to U.S. trade with Canada on a single day. Should normal relations return, however, the increase in trade could be substantial.
The United States should take advantage of the deal on political prisoners brokered by the Catholic Church and Spain's Foreign Ministry. An effective opening of the Obama Administration’s policy toward the island ending in the normalization of relations is in the best interests of both the American and Cuban people.