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Stirrings of Disenchantment Among the Powerful

Is the Cuba Blockade Ending?

by W.T. WHITNEY

The U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, cruel and reviled across the globe, has lasted as long as did the stretch between the U.S. Civil War and World War I. But it may not last forever. Just recently, stirrings of disenchantment among powerful forces have cropped up nationally and in Florida, epicenter of Cuban émigré opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary government.

On February 11 the Atlantic Council released its poll on attitudes toward the blockade expressed during January. The Council surveyed 1000 people nationwide plus 617 Florida residents and 525 Latinos, all by telephone. The report became a main focus of news stories on blockade dissent appearing simultaneously.

Of those surveyed nationally, 56 percent – 62 percent of Latinos, – want normalization of relations, 61 percent oppose travel restrictions, 62 percent OK U.S. business dealings with Cuba, and 61 percent oppose Cuba’s designation as a terrorist nation. Among Floridians offering opinions, 63 percent call for normal relations and 67 percent oppose both travel restrictions and the terrorist label. And 52 percent of Republicans want normalization, as do 64 percent of Miami-Dade County Floridians.

“The majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle are ready for a policy shift,” concludes the Atlantic Council. “Most surprisingly, Floridians are even more supportive …This is a key change from the past.” And “Economic arguments prove to be most convincing for normalization.

The splash from this survey report coincided with other ripples. The Washington Post interviewed Cuban exile and international sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul, “one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement” and someone, who with his brother, “amass[ed] one of North America’s great fortunes.” Fanjul discussed trips to Cuba in 2012 and 2013.

“I’d like to see our family back in Cuba,” he said, and “if there’s an arrangement within Cuba and the United States, and legally it can be done and there’s a proper framework set up and in place, then we will look at that possibility.” Cuban American businessman Paul Cejas, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, traveled with Fanjul: “The embargo is really an embargo against America ourselves, because Americans cannot do business with Cuba, where there are incredible opportunities for growth.”

Ex-Florida governor and former blockade apologist Charlie Crist, Democratic candidate to be Florida’s next governor, announced a change of heart. Lifting the blockade, he said, “could help the Florida economy, creating more jobs in the state and allowing Florida businesses to sell goods and services to an island that has been largely closed to most commerce with the United States for more than 50 years.

On February 10 the Miami Herald published Senators Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) and Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) op-ed piece entitled “Time for a new Policy on Cuba.”  Citing survey results a day before their release, they note that, “A majority of Americans, including Cuban-Americans, wants to change course,” and “so do we.”

While disparaging Cuba as repressive and an economic failure, the senators argue that “Trade with Latin America is the fastest growing part of our international commerce… Rather than isolate Cuba with outdated policies, we have isolated ourselves …Current policy boxes U.S. entrepreneurs and companies out of taking part in any of this burgeoning Cuban private sector.”

Remarkably, news in November, 2013 that President Obama had questions about U.S. Cuban policies quickly became old news. At a Miami political fundraiser he had suggested that “in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel,” old policies “don’t make sense.”

This time, news of the survey triggered real discussion even though, significantly, its findings were not new. In fact, annual Gallup polling on Cuba since 1999 has consistently demonstrated nationwide majorities in favor of re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations” and ending the blockade. Other surveys yielded similar results.  A Florida International University opinion poll in 2008 showed that “a majority of Cuban-Americans now favor ending the … economic embargo and restoring diplomatic relations” with Cuba, 55 percent and 65 percent, respectively.  

In releasing its report, the Atlantic Council attached a remarkably forthright advocacy statement to its recitation of data. Its report surely may be useful for having updated long established trends, but why did it command the attention it did?

The Council is no bit player in establishment circles. Former Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Christian Herter founded it in 1961 as a support mechanism for NATO.  It maintains close ties with prominent U.S. and European NGO’s involved with diplomatic and security issues. Weapons manufacturers are corporate members.  Directors, some honorary, include diplomatic, defense, and intelligence honchos like Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Wesley Clark, Michael Hayden, and Robert Gates.

Perhaps now, with movers and shakers taking things in hand, change really is on the way. But a thorny detail may need attending to: Cuban leaders are unlikely to discuss big changes with U.S. leaders without, first, the Cuban Five political prisoners being sent home. That’s the opinion of Stephen Kimber, author of the only English language book (“What Lies across the Water”) on the case of the Five.

Some of the recent news stories on new attitudes allude to Cuban imprisonment of U.S. contractor Alan Gross – he violated Cuban laws – as accounting for U.S. intransigence on the blockade.  That brings to mind the possibility of a remarkable scenario: The Cuban Five prisoners are exchanged for Alan Gross so that talks may begin on establishing bi-national relations.

W. T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.