America’s chance to change course on Cuba

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The new political landscape in Washington and Havana offers a chance to change a foreign policy decision that has caused considerable, and unnecessary, suffering for almost half a century — the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

The Nation magazine has reported that Cuban President Raul Castro, in private talks with American actor Sean Penn, has expressed a willingness to meet with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and discuss issues of common interest. A crucial component of these talks should be lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Although lifting the embargo — or recognizing the Cuban regime — requires congressional approval, Obama and the Democratic Party majority in Congress should be able to move forward with this, even if recalcitrant opponents in Congress are taken into account.

The embargo has not benefited anyone except its target: Fidel Castro. It has allowed both Fidel and Raul Castro to maintain a strong grip on power, and to use it as a rallying point against the United States and as a scapegoat for the deprivations that Cubans have endured since the embargo was imposed in 1962.

The efforts of those supporting the embargo — mostly in the Cuban exile community in Florida — as a means of undermining the Castros have proven to be counterproductive, since the embargo has neither weakened their power nor turned the population against them. In addition, changing demographics has made the younger generation less obsessed with the regime and more open to negotiation.

As a result of the embargo, and for several years, there were severe restrictions on the export of medicines from the U.S. to Cuba. In 1995, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States informed the U.S. Government that such activities violated international law, and requested that the U.S. take immediate action to exempt medicines from the embargo. According to the Cuban delegation to the United Nations, the restrictions on medical products were “so extensive that they make such imports practically impossible.”

In spite of these difficulties, Cuba developed one of the best public health-care systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a U.S. nongovernment organization that evaluated Cuba’s health-care system in 2000-2001, described Cuba as “a shining example of the power of public health to transform the health of an entire country by a commitment to prevention and by careful management of its medical resources.”

The embargo has been roundly condemned in several U.N. General Assembly votes. In the 2008 vote, the motion to keep the embargo was defeated 185-3. Only the U.S., Israel and the Pacific island of Palau (21,000 people) voted to keep it. George P. Schultz, who was President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, has called the continuing U.S. embargo “insane.”

As things stand now it is improbable that the U.S. embargo will hurt Raul more than it has hurt Fidel. Now is the perfect time to try a diplomatic approach that could lead to the end of the embargo and normal relations between Cuba and the U.S. The process should consist of several steps to allow the development of trust, trade, and the free movement of people between the U.S. and Cuba.

The biggest losers in the current situation are ordinary Cubans who, while enjoying good health care and education, have none of the advantages of living in an open society with access to goods that people in other countries take for granted.

The Cubans I spoke to on the island are eager for normal relations with the U.S. They feel emotionally closer to the Americans than they did to the Russians when the Cuba was receiving considerable help from the Soviet Union.

One Cuban told me, half-jokingly, “The Cuban regime will be more easily defeated by iPods and Jeans than by an American army.”

Lifting the embargo on Cuba would be much less complex than ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or solving what is rapidly becoming the Pakistani nightmare. It would create an atmosphere of worldwide goodwill with good consequences for world peace.

Persisting in a course of action that has proved wrong for almost half a century is to accept the tyranny of failed ideas.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.