Last week, at a conference about reporting in Cuba held at Columbia University, a writer talked about dealing with Cuban officials — a few panels were conducted off-the-record, underlining the double-speak that dominates discussion of Cuba, even when it takes place below the Tiffany glass of Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall. In her many years on the island, the writer said, there had always been a disparity between the narrative about Cuba and what her eyes told her, the daily evidence provided by supermarket shelves, household gossip, jobs and transportation.
Over the course of three days of talks by writers, academics, and policy-makers —including writers Jon Lee Anderson, Ann Louise Bardach, historian Louis Perez, former Presidential advisor Dan Restrepo, and many more — it became clear that the sentiment also refers to how Cuba is discussed in the United States. Even as expert after expert confirmed that support for the trade and travel embargo sits at an all-time low among both politicians and the American public, they confirmed that the act of Congress required to fully dismantle it wouldn’t happen anytime soon. Yet, experts also pointed out that the six months between November’s midterm elections and next April’s Summit of the Americas stand as a window in which the unpredictable could, potentially, occur.
“We should just do it, unilaterally,” said ex-White House council Greg Curtis, sketching out steps that President Obama could take, no strings attached, to render the embargo toothless. Personally attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama, where Raúl Castro will be in attendance, for one. Re-establish diplomatic relations with the country. Take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, to which it was added in 1982 for supporting Latin American groups designated as terrorist by the U.S. — something Cuba no longer does. Lift travel restrictions for all Americans, a step long-supported by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including Massachusetts’ Rep. Jim McGovern, D, Arizona’s Sen. Jeff Flake, R.
Here are others who’ve come out against the embargo in the last few months: Hillary Clinton, Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, and the entirety of the New York Times editorial board, whose recent editorial summarized the reasons for ending the embargo. Extend the time period examined to a few years and account for double-speak, and that list also includes Cuban-American businessman Carlos Saladrigas and sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul, who reported after various visits to the island that he’d invest in Cuba were it legal to do so. An open letter to the President outlining the steps he could take under executive authority to encourage change in Cuba via engagement garnered signatures from a host of thinktankers, including Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Negroponte.
Were this an issue on which the American public could vote, two separate polls conducted this year confirm that the embargo would not be long for this world. The 2014 FIU Cuba Poll revealed that almost three-quarters of Cubans living in Miami-Dade County believe that the embargo has not worked. “Cubans may be intransigent, but we’re not stupid,” said Guillermo Grenier, FIU sociology professor and the poll’s author, as he presented its results. Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, reported that 63 percent of Florida favors changing U.S. policy toward Cuba. “Polls don’t usually give you 65 percent,” he said. “The notion that Florida is a poisoned chalice that no politician can touch is not true anymore.”
Within this context, the U.S.’s elected officials seem to be the party generating a narrative that doesn’t match the evidence provided by the American public: widespread skepticism of the embargo’s efficacy, a desire to engage Cuba, and the acknowledgement of how useful investment can be to coax change along. Come November, will voters reveal that they want the storyline united with its reality?
Julia Cooke, Al Jazeera America