Beginning of the end for US Cuban embargo

Posted on April 23, 2009


By Antonio Castillo, published in Eureka Street

23 April 2009

While the Fifth Summit of the Americas ended without an agreed final declaration, the gathering of hemispheric presidents will be better remembered for US President Obama’s pledged to ‘seek a new beginning with Cuba’.

While Cuba was not present at the gathering of 34 leaders — under Washington’s instigation it has been barred since 1962 from the Organization of American States (OAS) — it was never out of sight. The nearly five decades of US embargo on the island took over the agenda from the very first day.

In the inaugural speech of the Summit, Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner urged Obama to lift the embargo on Cuba and to build new relations between the Americas. The US embargo has never been just a ‘Cuban problem’. It has been — along with the Cuban exclusion from the OAS — a historic point of friction between Latin America and the US.

Obama responded swiftly. ‘The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,’ he told the gathering. His remark, and his pledge to talk to Raúl Castro — who replaced his aging brother Fidel as Cuban president — are the clearest signals in decades of the US policy shift toward La Havana.

President Obama’s new approach to Cuba began unfolding a few days before the Summit of the Americas. On 13 April he announced that travel restrictions to Cuban-Americans visiting the island were to be scrapped, and that the limit on remittances sentto Cuba from the US would be raised.

He also gave the green light to US telecommunications companies to start flirting with business on the island. In addition, the sending of goods to Cuba such as clothing, seeds, medicines and veterinary products, are no longer considered ‘banned donations’.

While it is true that Obama left in place the core measures that form the embargo, his announcement is a major step in thawing relations between Washington and La Havana.

The measures were widely applauded, even by the staunch anticommunist Cuban-American community of Florida. Ramón Saúl Sánchez, one of the most respected Cuban exiles living in the US and leader of the Democracy Movement, not only congratulated Obama’s decision, but also favoured a change of US policy toward Cuba.

The relaxation of the embargo announced by Obama came in the context of growing US public opinion favouring a change of policy towards La Havana. A recent US Opinion Dynamics poll showed that 59 per cent of respondents said the US should lift the embargo.

And a December 2008 poll by the Florida International University (FIU) indicated that the majority of Cuban-American voters would support bilateral dialogue and normal diplomatic ties with Cuba.

A few months ago Republican Senator Richard Lugar, considered one of the statesman of US foreign policy, said in a report that the unilateral embargo on Cuba had failed. He went even further and called on Obama to lift all travel restrictions and to forge full bilateral diplomatic ties around issues such as drug traffic, energy and immigration.

The US business sector — largely unable to invest in the island unlike its counterparts from China, Europe and Canada — has also joined the cause to end the embargo. Myron Brilliant, the vice president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, described Obama’s measures as ‘encouraging’ and said that the ‘last 50 years of our embargo on Cuba has demonstrated that unilateral sanctions don’t work’.

In ‘US Policy toward a Cuba in Transition’, published by the Brookings Institution, 19 academics, opinion leaders, and international diplomats said, ‘The nearly 50-year-old policy toward Cuba has failed.’ The document indicates that ‘Cuba should be a pressing issue for the Obama administration’ and called Obama to commit ‘to a long-term process of critical and constructive engagement at all levels including with the Cuban government’.
US announcements to end the embargo have been made previously without any concrete results. However this time a few favourable factors may allow President Obama to push this policy shift further.

First, his Democrat Party controls Congress. It is in the Congress where the decision to lift the embargo lies. Second — and perhaps more importantly — is that the Cuban-American lobby, unwavering defenders of the embargo, is no longer the only referent for the US administration. There is an increasing number of Cuban-Americans who think the embargo is no longer viable, and their voices are reaching Capital Hill.

And in contrast to many previous American presidents, Obama is not indebted to Florida Cuban-American voters.

The failed embargo on Cuba, in place since 1962, has outlasted nine American presidents, from John F. Kennedy, who first imposed the embargo, to George W. Bush. It has isolated the US from Latin America. And it has brought wide international condemnation, including from the United Nations, which has passed dozens of condemnatory resolutions.

President Obama has two options. He could either end up as the tenth president outlasted by the embargo. Or he could be remembered as the statesman who ended this anachronistic US foreign policy blunder that has caused so much pain to Cuba and its people.

This article was first published in Eureka Street.

Dr Antonio Castillo teaches in the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney. His books include Testigos Molestos (Undesirable Witnesses, CEDIC 1983), an account of the struggle of young independent journalists working under Chile’s military regime 1973-1989. His current research project is Venezuela’s Tele Sur: The Latin American Al Jazeera.