On Dec. 17, 2014, President Barack Obama went on
television to declare the United States was unilaterally ending America’s “outdated approach [to Cuba] that, for decades, has failed to
advance our interests.”
So why do so many American politicians and
commentators still persist in arguing the U.S. has been “giving and giving” in
dealings with Cuba, and insisting the Cubans reciprocate by… well, changing
their government to suit American demands?
Let’s start with simple truths. Cuban did not
impose a stifling, 55-year economic embargo on the United States that has failed to advance anyone’s
interests. Cuba did not put the United States on a list of state sponsors of
terrorism. Cuba did not try to assassinate American presidents. Cuba did not attempt to overthrow the U.S. government.
During President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba this week, Americans need to at
least consider the perspective from the Cuban side of the Florida Straits
The U.S. embargo — the Cubans call it a
blockade — is still the law of the American land. According to the United
Nations, the embargo, which has been virtually universally condemned
internationally, has cost the Cuban economy over $116 billion.
Ending the embargo is, not
surprisingly, Cuba’ssine qua nonfor normalizing relations with the United States.
To be fair, President Obama has used his executive
powers to mitigate some of the embargo’s impact, including, most recently,
permitting the use of U.S. dollars in transactions involving Cuba. There is more he could do but,
thanks to the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo’s deleterious effects will not
finally disappear until Congress votes to scrap it.
In the meantime, even strategically
renewing the 1917 Trading With theEnemyAct, as Obama did in September to
give him wiggle room around the embargo, is not only insulting — you claim to
want to normalize relations with a country you designate an “enemy”? — but that
law continues to ban many aspects of trade with Cuba. In 2012, an American businessman
was even charged with violating the act for investing in Cuban real estate.
Thanks to extra-territoriality provisions in 1992’s
Torricelli act and 1996’s Helms-Burton Act, foreign companies trading with Cuba and many international banks have
been slapped with multi-million-dollar fines for conducting otherwise ordinary
How far can extra-territoriality go?
In December, a senior executive with the Canadian mining company Sherritt had
to be Skyped into anEconomist-sponsored New York conference on “new opportunities for American
companies interested in doing business” in Cuba after the U.S. government
refused to allow him into the country because his company does business with
While the Cubans view the embargo as the most
serious impediment to re-establishing normal relations with the U.S., there are others.
Guantánamo? Although the naval station no longer
has any American strategic or military significance, the U.S. continues to occupy those 45 square
miles of Cuban territory under a 113-year-old neo-colonial treaty from Theodore
Roosevelt’s day. Cuba, which hasn’t cashed an annual
American $4,085 “rent” check since 1960, wants its land returned. Washington says no.
Giving and giving?
Or consider the Cuban Medical Professional Parole
Program, a Bush-era initiative still in place and offering speedy entry into
the United States for any Cuban medic who defects. Its
sole purpose is to undermine Cuba’s highly successful medical
internationalism initiative, which has over 50,000 Cuban medical personnel in
60 countries, delivering care to poor people who otherwise wouldn’t have
And then there are the ongoing U.S. attempts to promote Cuban “regime
change.” From overt and covert support for violent terrorist attacks against Cuba, to beaming propaganda radio and
television signals into Cuba in violation of international law,
to current State Department and USAID support for anti-government groups in the
name of “robust democracy assistance.” You can understand why Cuba sees that as a threat.
Although Cuba scores well on cultural and social
human rights — health care, education — it does have a poor record in providing
individual citizens with civil and political rights.
If Washington is really serious about improving
those, however, it could start by stopping meddling in Cuba’s internal affairs. How can Havana begin to liberalize its economy or
political structure when the most powerful country in the world — 90 miles away
— funds groups that seek its downfall?
Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have improved enormously since December
17, 2014. It is
in the interests of both countries to continue this process apace. But first it
is important for both countries to understand the position of the other, to
walk in their shoes.
To date there has been little evidence Washington understands the Cuban concerns — and
that is too bad.