End the Cuban Embargo: Does it Mean Anything?

Two days after The New York Times published an article detailing the repeated attempts of Cubans to reach the United States, the newspaper’s Editorial Board wrote an editorial arguing that President Obama should end the embargo on Cuba. As the newspaper said, “for the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo.” Lately, questions over whether or not the United States should continue its embargo of Cuba abound. These changing attitudes are reflected in the polls: 52 percent of Cubans believe the United States should end the embargo on Cuba and 68 percent of Americans support reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The New York Times’ unprecedented position on the embargo’s legitimacy not only sparked a Washington Post counter editorial, but it also fostered plenty of debate in Spanish-speaking news media, especially in Miami. Despite evolving attitudes more generally, “63 percent of Cuban Americans [still] believe that Cuba should remain on the State Department’s list of countries designated as sponsors of terrorism. The other countries on that list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.”

Focusing on Cuba’s record of alleged human rights abuses, the Washington Post’s rebuttal questioned “whether a further relaxation [of the embargo] is merited,” stating the traditionally held position that “fully lifting the embargo now would reward and ratify their intransigence.” Other responses trotted out the same arguments, citing persecution of journalists, the imprisonment of American Alan Gross and the effectiveness of the embargo in effecting change. According to Amnesty International, “peaceful demonstrators, independent journalists and human rights activists were routinely detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.” The government also disconnects phones and “exert[s] control over all media, while access to information on the internet remain[s] challenging due to technical limitations and restrictions on content.”

However, these concerns are often overplayed and fail to portray the complexity of the issues at hand. While media in the United States tends to focus on Cuba’s economy, politics and human rights, “the media is often bent on questioning whether [changes in the Cuban economy] are ‘heart-felt’ measures” and frequently “presents reforms in Cuba as superficial, especially when contrasted with the supposed advantages of the neo-liberal formula (privatization, deregulation, etc.),” according to Alfredo Prieto González, director of Havana’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center’s Popular Communications Department.

Even though the embargo’s purpose is to pressure Cuba into economic and political change, when these changes do occur they are not taken at face value, nor are identified as sufficiently democratic reforms. For its part, Cuba identifies itself as a democratic republic/socialist democracy in its constitution and maintains that American democracy is not the only legitimate version. The Cuban government posits the United States discriminates based on interstate relations with the Soviet Union and Venezuela, countries ideologically different than the U.S. but therefore also those willing to trade with Cuba. The New York Times editorial attributes Cuba’s recent economic changes under President Raúl Castro to Venezuelan upheaval and economic woes, stating “in recent years, a devastated economy has forced Cuba to make reforms,” simplifying the reach of the changes as purely externally caused.

Fidel Castro himself wrote in the state newspaper, Granma, to applaud the New York Times’s statement. Fidel cited nearly every paragraph of the editorial, only taking issue with the “slanderous and cheap accusation” of well known dissident Oswaldo Payá’s death in a questionable car accident and calling attention to Herbert Matthew’s 1957 article in the midst of the Revolution. By including the critiques of his government in his analysis of the Time’s editorial, Castro otherwise amplified the reach and nuance of the statement in Cuba.

Dissidents publishing in the online, Havana-based 14yMedio denounced Fidel’s involvement as an attempt to regain his stance in the country while promoting the more complex position that the U.S. embargo gives the Cuban government an identifiable enemy and cause for economic woes, whereas the true embargo is internal.

Perhaps sparked by mainstream media (NYT, WP) attention to Cuba, there has been increased coverage of the country’s involvement in the Ebola epidemic: following the New York Times lead, other sources are reporting on the doctors and nurses sent to West Africa. Infrequently praised in U.S. media, inclusion of Cuba’s commitment to international health is important for deepening American’s understanding of the island and its values.

The support for ending the Cuban embargo in the U.S. is at best borderline. International approval is clear, as the United States and Israel again remain the only countries voting to maintain the embargo. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Cuba’s disassociation with the Soviets, media reporting remains focused on Cold War ideology and economics. Information about the island recurs cyclically and along predictable lines. Every so often, Cuba reappears in the public eye in a topical, crisis-oriented manner only to fade once again to the background not much later. Cuba is continuously simplified by the American media, and without greater understanding of the island and its culture, public opinion will not have enough information to legitimately support or oppose ending the embargo.

What is needed is the kind of smart coverage that the media is giving to the Cuban response to Ebola. The country has sent doctors and nurses to West Africa to treat Ebola and after a delayed response,  the United States has agreed to collaborate with Cuba to stem the outbreak. Known for its health care and medical skill, this is similar to the Cuba’s dedication of doctors to treat cholera in Haiti, and offering assistance to the U.S. post-Katrina. It is this type of nuanced depiction needed in the U.S. media to inspire policy change toward the island, not the reiterated rhetoric of the past 50 years.

One comment

  • Alejandro Victores

    I would love to sit down with you and discuss ‘overplayed’ human rights violations from the perspective of someone whose family members were political prisoners under the Castro regime. I’d also love to talk about how the Cuban constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on in the eyes of those who framed it. Elections in a single-party state are not elections. The embargo is dated–we can agree on that. But you have to admit–your perspective is skewed as an Ivy League-educated American who studied abroad in a country where most citizens struggle with scarcity and continued violations of basic human rights by their own government. You were at least marginally protected by the blue American passport with which you entered Cuba. You dipped your feet in the pool and thought the temperature was nice but ignored the fact that millions of people are drowning in the same pool.

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