It is astonishing that an impoverished speck on the rump of the most powerful country in the world has managed to intimidate it for more than half a century. Cuba, only 144 kms off the coast of Florida, has had to suffer Uncle Sam’s unforgiving wrath because it became a Communist regime, locked up opponents and did not hold free elections. Tough trade and travel embargoes were imposed by Washington. Residents of the land of the free for decades have been banned from going there and woe betide if you were caught with one of Cuba’s famed cigars. But in recent years there has been some forgiveness. If Hillary Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, she has promised to end the embargo. However, the last word will not be hers. It is Congress which has that authority and it is showing no sign of softening its stance.
All this is a hangover from the Cold War which ended 25 years ago. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew the pro-US dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (a good friend of U.S. gangsters), nationalised American-owned properties, decided its new best friend was the Soviet Union and allowed Moscow to establish a military presence on the island. All this was at a time when for Americans there was no bigger bogeyman than those threatening Russians with their rockets and nuclear bombs. President Kennedy stared down the enemy and decided that Cuba, having turned Communist, needed to be isolated and punished. Diplomatic ties were cut and replaced by sanctions. The embargo was incorporated into the quaintly-named Trading with the Enemy Act.
President Obama in the twilight of his presidency must reflect on how little he achieved in his wish to have a greater engagement with his neighbour with its penurious citizens, dilapidated infrastructure and vintage cars of the Saturday Evening Post era in America. Two years ago, he announced the restoration of diplomatic relations and last March became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years. It is not only Congress which has thwarted his intentions, but also until now voters in the crucial swing state of Florida, where many Cuban exiles and their families have a say.
But the public tide is turning. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans want an end to the embargo. The Council on Foreign Relations says that even most Cuban-Americans now support this. Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton told a campaign audience in Miami what would have been unthinkable for any political candidate not long ago – that the embargo was obsolete. ‘I understand the scepticism in this community about any policy of engagement towards Cuba’ she said. ‘I’ve been sceptical, too. But we cannot wait any longer for a failed policy to bear fruit. We have to seize this moment’. According to the New Yorker, Donald Trump tried to seize his moment 20 years ago when he sent consultants to Havana ‘to sniff out’ business opportunities. This was in violation of the embargo which could have landed him in jail. Trump claimed they went there for charitable purposes.
Despite the overwhelming public sentiment, Congress is unlikely to be swayed until Cuba holds free elections and ends its crackdown on dissidents. In the meantime, changes are taking place thanks to Obama exercising executive authority. U.S. cruise liners are now visiting Cuba and commercial flights from America have resumed after more than 50 years. One airline official was so carried away by the first flight that he likened it to one of ‘the great moments in history’. Last month, the U.S. for the first time in 25 years did not oppose the customary U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the embargo. It abstained.
Now comes the scrapping of the $100 limit on what Americans can bring back from Cuba. This means they can now fill their suitcases with cigars and rum if they wish. But that’s if they can actually visit there. At present, Americans are still banned from going to Cuba unless they represent relatively harmless interests like education, cultural or sport. Last year, there were 3.5 million visitors to Cuba, the majority from Europe. Only 161,000 were Americans, albeit a 77% increase on the previous year, reported Agence France Presse. If the embargo is ever lifted, it will be a case of los Yanquis están viniendo – two million or more crossing the Florida Strait in search of cheap holidays, those cigars and all that rum.
It is curious that Washington has enforced such a harsh attitude towards a tiny neighbour for so long when it has had no compunction in getting along with various tyrants and dictatorial regimes elsewhere in the neighbourhood during this period. Haiti, Nicaragua. El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Guatemala come to mind. These were anything but hospitable regimes. Opposing them would not have been recommended for anyone’s health or life expectancy.
FOOTNOTE. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Cuban government estimates that the trade embargo has amounted to a total loss of $1.126 trillion.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.