10/28/13 - News & Observer - US embargo on Cuba must end
When I recently visited Cuba on a Witness for Peace people-to-people tour,
I had my own share of predictable expectations from salsa and jazz to palm
trees and smiles. All verified, though some smiles were muted as we arrived
on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion with a hunger strike by U.S.
prisoners underway at Guantanamo.
To visit Cuba is to face the brutal contradictions of the American empire.
It is to love one's country and want badly to right it so our principles
shape our policies. In the case of Cuba, our policies were worse than I
I learned that in the 1990s, during what Cubans call the Special Period,
Cubans lost an average of 10 pounds per person. The collapse of their
trading partner, the Soviet Union, also brought down their oil-driven
agriculture, and the U.S. responded by tightening a trade embargo imposed
decades earlier to sink their economy and Fidel Castro.
On Tuesday, the Cuban government will ask the United Nations to condemn the
embargo. Each year, we get only one or two needy allies to join us in
backing the embargo. The vote last year was 188-3. Why do we still maintain
As the representative at the U.S. Embassy in Havana explained to our group:
"These things have a life of their own." If you're thinking there is no
U.S. Embassy in Havana, that's technically correct. There is, however, a
seven-story building on Havana Bay, a Swiss embassy with no Swiss in it,
where our Interests Section is lodged, displaying U.S. power. In answer, a
mass of Cuban flags rises as high as the embassy and rip and roar in the
There we got confirmation that Americans and Cubans want to visit and
trade. About 400,000 Americans visited Cuba last year legally, and the U.S.
is Cuba's sixth-largest trading partner (some say fourth) despite the
embargo that penalizes others who trade with Cuba.
Our embassy representative spoke dismissively of Cuba as having a mid-size
U.S. city's economy while celebrating U.S. economic and military force.
However, the people in the room cared more about America as a force for
justice. For us, the most American thing one can do is work for what Cubans
want: an end to the embargo, a return of Guantanamo, their deepest harbor,
and normalized relations.
Our nations stand to learn from each other.Cuba's struggle is inspiring.
Faced with the loss of oil and chemical fertilizers in the 1990s, farmers,
professors and the government made strides in organic farming that are
noted the world over. While North Carolina rejects federal medical funds
for 500,000 low-income people, Cuba's medicare-for-all puts the country
ahead of the U.S. in health results. Excellent and free university
education makes their technicians in science, medicine and agriculture
valued throughout South America. A food coupon system secures 10 days of
meals for each Cuban.
Some would be troubled by the slow email and dearth of malls, commercials
and stores. There is a wealth gap that may widen as dozens of categories of
businesses opened for private enterprise. Our youthful Cuban guide longed,
like others, for America's consumer culture that his father had disappeared
into. That was until he served in Nicaragua and saw the unaddressed poverty
there; then he said he understood the Cuban Revolution.
We spoke also with a farmer who enjoys a simple, thriving life, his sons
living on adjacent fields. He recalled for us the Batista years with quotas
on the tobacco sharecroppers could sell. His father had to sell their
surplus to the landowner who resold it for four times more, right before
Despite their poverty, Cubans are working together for a society where
everyone matters and resources are well used. Meanwhile in America, the
world's richest nation, the few hoard wealth, and possibilities for the
vast majority shrink as resources are squandered. We need not fear a
successful Cuba - unless we are afraid of rediscovering American values or
addressing the excesses of capitalism.
With so much to gain through trade and exchange, why don't we normalize
relations with Cuba and end the embargo? Let's agree with the rest of the
world today when it votes once again to condemn the U.S. embargo.
Anne Cassebaum is an associate professor emerita at Elon University.
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