Give Cubans a Chance

If there were a category in the Guinness World Records for most ineffective foreign policy decision, the embargo on Cuba would probably be among the leading contenders. How else can we categorize a policy that in more than 60 years hasn’t produced any of its desired effects?

Let’s see. It hasn’t improved an iota the situation of the Cuban people. It hasn’t broken the Castro brothers authoritarian ruling of the country. It hasn’t fostered a popular uprising against the regime leading to its downfall. It hasn’t improved the U.S. image in the world. It hasn’t led to a better communication and a mutually convenient commercial exchange with the Cuban government. And we could go on…

If anything, the embargo has succeeded in subjecting Cubans to a miserable standard of living. On several visits to the island on UN-sponsored public health missions I was able to see the limited food choices available to Cubans. Going into a bodega was an exercise in frustration. Store shelves were emptier than an unlucky beggar’s cup –not so the stores for the diplomatic corps or for the government elite and its favored artists or sports figures.

For decades after it was imposed, the embargo was unable to turn the people against the Castro brothers. Even worse, since they used the embargo to justify their own shortcomings, it increased their grip on power.

The embargo has tarnished the U.S. image around the world. On June 23, 2021, the U.N. General Assembly voted for an end to the embargo on Cuba. Only two countries, the U.S. and Israel, voted for the continuation of the embargo. 179 countries (there were three abstentions) voted for an end to the embargo. Granted that the UN General Assembly is a very political body, but are we as arrogant to believe that 179 countries are wrong?

As the coronavirus pandemic is raging on the island, Cubans lack the most basic elements such as syringes to vaccinate the population. Syringes? In the XXI century? Not even Camus would have imagined such a scenario. In addition, hospitals are badly lacking in medicines and basic operating materials.

The uprisings now taking place throughout the island may eventually lead to the government’s downfall. It should be noted, however, that these demonstrations are caused not only by the incapacity of the government to provide Cubans a decent standard of living. They also respond to the restrictions imposed by the embargo.

In my trips to Cuba, one thing always surprised me. Although the Russian government was financially helping the Cuban government, while the American government was imposing a crippling embargo, Cubans felt much closer to the Americans than to the Russians.

Can anything be done now to alleviate the situation of the Cuban people? I believe so. To begin with, the U.S. government should change the tone of the relationship with Cuba from one of confrontation to one of cooperation. The U.S. should send a delegation of physicians to assess the health situation of Cubans, and to determine the areas where help is most needed. Nothing could be easier than to send syringes and basic medicines. Medical aid should be given with no preconditions. Although the Cuban government has many shortcomings, it is far from being the worst government with which the U.S. has normal diplomatic relations.

For the last 60 years dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba has been one of confrontation. President Biden can change that. He should listen to those Democratic lawmakers who asked him to revoke Trump’s “cruel” sanctions and promote a more constructive approach with Havana. For 60 years the Cuban people have suffered a punishing embargo. It is time to give Cubans a chance.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”