Cuba’s Forbearance of President Barack Obama

The US president began his address to the Cuban people invoking parallels between America’s and Cuba’s political histories: “We both live in a new world colonized by Europeans; and Cuba, like the US was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa; Cubans, like us, can trace our heritage to slaves and to slave owners”.

Then Barack Obama listed cultural commonalities before turning, however gently, to differences, and then launched his American democracy sell. He did so without a hint of awareness of the 99%/1% split here, disregarding the $1.3 trillion student debt, amnesia of sanctions by which the US terrorizes other nations, coercing others into exploitative trade deals, the record of US police brutality against our Black people, the 2.3 million imprisoned Americans, and more. Does he really think he can get away with such whitewashing as a prelude to boasting, especially to Cubans, of America’s merits, topping it off with a hard sell on behalf of Cuban Americans?

In the March21 press conference the day before with President Raul Castro, after some heartfelt remarks, Obama raised the hackneyed human-rights arguments that obsess western diplomats. Why Obama is compelled –I suppose because, after all, he IS American– to shift from noble dialogue and grace to political posturing, I can’t understand. His condescending remarks reduce Obama from outstanding individual to humdrum spokesman. Raul Castro, prepared for the American’s subtle assault, made a firm rejoinder, pointing out just how inclusive the concept and application of ‘human rights’ really is, and where the US falls short. Castro too reminded us that the US embargo is still in place, an issue we might forget, given the press’ attention on not what the US is withholding but what Cuba is offering: tourist pleasures and profits for US businesses.

By Tuesday, both of Obama’s presentations were overshadowed by news of the terror attacks in Belgium. Maybe TV networks welcomed the diversion, with a lineup of terrorism experts within easy reach. Covering bloody terror scenes is easier than showing us how gracious and resolute the Cubans are, simpler than questioning a spiteful embargo.

US press coverage of the historic visit of President Obama began with little substance. Reporters, perhaps contemplating their next book, opine how tourists won’t be able to see (quaint) old Cuba, with its 1950-model autos and deteriorating manors.

I regret not visiting Cuba during its hard years to feel that revolutionary wetness, when it established its powerful global reputation. My colleagues at WBAI Radio Rosemary Mealy and Sally O’Brien kept us informed of the stalwart Cuban spirit, their social achievements and steady diplomatic successes. They reminded us of the unjust embargo, and highlighted the succession of US vetoes against Cuba at the United Nations.

While these colleagues focused on Cuba, I was in Iraq documenting the newly imposed US-led and policed embargo there. Iraq’s isolation was more severe, abandoned by Arab neighbors and largely ignored by the world press. (Not to compare this barbarian form of collective punishment in the two nations. It was dramatically different.)

I recall how, from 1991 on, Cuba’s embargo history arose obliquely each time I arrived in Iraq. I was repeatedly confronted by: “When will the embargo end?” Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis perished in that bloodless assault; it penetrated every home; the economy collapsed; medical care was shredded, agricultural production plummeted, disease flourished. (Four million fled their homeland.) To Iraqis’ naïve question, I initially replied, “Look at Cuba”, meaning look how long the US has imposed sanctions there. What I should have suggested was that Iraqis look to Cuba for ways to survive and counter such punishment.

If only Iraqis had learned from Cuba. If only Iraq hadn’t been a leading Arab champion of Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, a position unacceptable to US-Israeli interests. If only Iraq and fellow Arab states succored one another with a healthy revolutionary spirit. If only Iraq hadn’t exhibited such prowess, and hadn’t invaded a neighbor with a military power encouraged and bolstered by the West (mainly USA) to fight its greater enemy Iran.

Just as the two peoples and two embargoes are not comparable, neither is the outcome. Eventually, after 8 years of that tortuous blockade, in 1998 Iraq abandoned attempts to appease the US to win UN approval and instead adopted other means to reverse its course. It had begun to rebuild when Washington announced its sanctions strategy had failed and in 2003 proceeded with plans to finish Iraq off with a massive military invasion and occupation.

Cuba was smarter, more self-sufficient; and it didn’t have oil. Havana furthered revolutionary ideals with friends while establishing good living standards for its citizens. Cuba build its outstanding medical service while a succession of Latin American neighbors proceeded with their own social and political revolutions, until finally it was the powerful USA who found itself isolated, its meanness and hubris exposed for all to see.

B. Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.barbaranimri.com. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.