Ending the Embargo

Is it absurd to keep America’s 55-year-old embargo against Cuba alive? Of course it is. The Cuban diaspora is less and less the anti-Castro monolith it once was, while the signals coming from Havana are that the regime is preparing to lift the blockade. At a time when more and more people in the United States are calling for the end of the embargo, Barack Obama could take action and thus step down in two years’ time as less of a lame duck than he now is.

How are the Ebola virus and the American embargo of Cuba related? The United States is one of the principal donors in the struggle against Ebola in West Africa. Cuba, which has sent more than 460 doctors and nurses to Ebola-stricken countries since September, is the biggest provider of medical personnel. Both countries have recently been lauded for their actions, and John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, paid a passing tribute to the Cuban contribution. In the Cuban newspaper, Granma, Fidel Castro suggested that Washington and Havana should put their differences aside, even if only temporarily, in order to combat the pandemic.

We could call this “Ebola diplomacy.” Yet, when it comes down to it, such diplomacy is quite insufficient. The fact remains that the two main aid contributors could collaborate closely on the ground but, apparently, as The New York Times laments, the United States does not deem the situation to be serious enough to warrant a combined effort. In a recent series of editorials, The New York Times went on a crusade, calling for an end to this harmful, if not useless, embargo against an authoritarian regime that is, nevertheless, giving tiny indications of openness.

The time for ending the embargo has, however, been right for a while. The voices, including some Republicans, are growing louder and demanding that this antediluvian policy be repealed or, at least, reduced significantly. In an open letter signed by over 50 people and addressed to Mr. Obama in May, John Negroponte, architect of the Contras’ war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s, came down in favor of de-escalating relations. It just goes to show American employers, as well as influential Cuban-American businesspeople who, even yesterday, doggedly supported the embargo now appear to approve of rapprochement. Hillary Clinton, who, it is presumed, will be the Democratic presidential candidate for the 2016 election, has shown support for a repeal. Her husband Bill, however, has always refused to envisage ending the embargo.

The old anti-Castro guard in Miami remains influential, particularly in Congress, but this ascendancy is unraveling in the hearts of the new generation of Cuban-Americans. Surveys now indicate that a majority of Americans, including Cuban exiles, are in favor of normalizing relations. Criticism of the embargo is now not necessarily considered political suicide.

Even if the embargo has been relaxed over time, notably as part of the financial transfers made to the United States by the Cuban community, it is still keeping Cuba’s trade with foreign markets firmly on a leash, suffocating the Cuban economy and people. If, then, Mr. Obama cannot completely lift the blockade without the approval of Congress, he could, at the price of complex partisan negotiations, make two major gestures by himself. He could re-establish diplomatic relations and remove Cuba from the list of “terrorist countries,” which notably includes Iran, Syria and Sudan. He could equally use the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City next April as a means to refresh his relations with Latin America by finally accepting Cuba’s presence. By clinging to its outdated policies, the United States has only succeeded in isolating itself.

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