As the Washington Post reported last year, this resolution is not legally binding. But, every year since Cuba first offered the anti-embargo measure in 1992, “The United States has never garnered more than three other votes against it.” That year, according to Reuters, only Israel and Romania stood with the U.S., 59 countries voted to approve the resolution, and all other member states abstained.
By 2015 – the year President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, took Cuba off the terror list, and loosened restrictions on travel and trade – Cuba got 191 votes to condemn U.S. policy. Next month, when the roll call on this year’s resolution is completed, the U.S. and (most likely) Israel will almost certainly stand alone in defense of the indefensible.
We write about this vote every year, even though many news organizations barely pay it any mind. To them, if the United States is getting its diplomatic clock cleaned for the 24th – or this year, 25th – year in a row, that isn’t really news.
But, it might be news to many Americans – who could be forgiven if they think the embargo has gone away – that it is still in place, just as many are unaware that tourist travel to the island is still illegal and subject to punishing fines. After all, President Obama visited the island, JetBlue became the first commercial carrier to resume regularly scheduled flights, Vanity Fair took Rihanna’s picture in Havana, and Conan O’Brien danced and sang oh so memorably on his visit last year.
Despite such mesmerizing images, the embargo continues. Even if the inconvenience it imposes on us can be measured by the cigars we didn’t smoke or the rum we couldn’t drink, the damage our embargo visits on the Cuban people, as Joy Gordon wrote in Harper’s Magazine, “has been, and continues to be, pervasive and profound.”
Hardliners, who want the embargo to remain in place, like to pretend it has magical powers; it can “punish” the leaders of Cuba’s communist government, “starving the Castros of cash,” they like to say, while somehow sparing Cubans of its harsh effects.
Logic tells us that cannot be right, and the Secretary-General’s report affirms that our logic and reality are aligned. In it, the World Food Program shows how U.S. sanctions limit Cuba’s agriculture production and boost food insecurity by raising the bill for the food the country needs to import to feed its people. The UN Development Program reports that the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to provide medical care and social services to more than 20,000 Cubans of all ages living with HIV/AIDS.
The embargo is, in fact, so pervasive that it runs up the costs of equipping 414 elementary school students enrolled in specialized music programs with violins, violas, and cellos. That might not break your heart, but this might: The embargo makes it extremely difficult for Cuba’s pediatric hospitals, indeed hospitals of all kinds, to obtain parts to repair diagnostic equipment and other supplies they need for patients in their care, and costly to find replacements from other foreign suppliers. The damage done by the embargo is immense, and no sector of Cuba’s economy is immune.
Neither are we. The embargo boomerangs on patients here in the U.S. for whom a raft of medicines and therapies – to reduce cholesterol, treat cancer, and cut down on the needless amputations of limbs for diabetics – are effectively kept out of reach. That’s heartbreaking, too.
We deeply admire President Obama for restoring relations, visiting Cuba, and working so hard to roll back this Cold War policy against Cuba that our country has been stuck with so long.
Yet as he wrote the historic speech he delivered in Havana, in which he called the embargo “an outdated burden on the Cuban people” and “a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba,” didn’t he wonder about the impact of the fines levied by his administration – hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in February 2016 alone – “for relatively small violations that took place years before,” as Harper’s reported – that would make global businesses and financial institutions afraid of doing business in Cuba?
This is the central theme of the Secretary-General’s report, echoed not just in Cuba’s comments but in those of our allies in the region and elsewhere: Financial enforcement of the U.S. embargo imposes burdens on Cuba’s economy that make it impossible for the country to reach its potential and for its citizens to live full lives. This, in turn, begs the question of whether President Obama can or is willing to do more before he leaves office to remove this core contradiction from U.S. policy.
This is not to cast a blind eye to those problems plaguing Cuba’s economy that are of its own creation. Dr. Ricardo Torres Pérez, a prominent, pro-reform economist in Cuba, identifies in a piece published by American University numerous decisions Cuba can take to get its own house in order. As the Associated Press reported, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said in a press conference this week, “No one’s ignoring or aims to hide our problems, our limitations, our mistakes.”
But, Mr. Rodríguez went on to say, “President Obama reserves broad executive authority that he can use up to his last minute in the White House.” He’s right. In a letter organized by the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO coalition including the Center for Democracy in the Americas offered a list of actions President Obama could take to further his Cuba policy advances, including assuring “the U.S. banking and financial services industry they would not face penalties if they take advantage of legal opportunities in Cuba.”
Rather than continuing the double-game of undermining Cuba’s economy while simultaneously pursuing U.S. diplomacy, there are steps the President can take, even now, before the UN votes next month – to help Cuba’s economy right itself, generating more jobs and opportunities, for the Cuban people and U.S. businesses.
What the hardliners say is fantasy. Our embargo is hurting the Cuban people, and the President should try to reduce their pain before he leaves office.
Ultimately, normalization will not be complete until the U.S. Congress votes to end the embargo. That’s going to take a lot of work and effort extending into the administration of whomever succeeds Mr. Obama as president. Perhaps our elected leaders could turn for inspiration to the Vatican’s section of the Secretary-General’s report, quoting Pope Francis:
“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement. It is a process, a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties,’ as José Martí said.”
The Pope went on to say, “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
The vote at the UN will take place on October 26th.
democracyinamericas.com, September 16, 2016