Time for U.S. to change course on Cuba

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The changed political landscape in Washington offers a unique opportunity to right a wrong foreign policy decision that has been maintained for almost half a century, the embargo against Cuba.

Remarkably, it is a policy that has benefited no one except the leader who was its target: Fidel Castro. Castro’s removal (either temporary or permanent) from the power scene opens the possibility of resuming a civil dialogue between Cuba and the United States.

After Castro assumed power and declared an alliance with the Soviet Union, an embargo was imposed on the island that had serious consequences on the Cuban government’s capacity to provide Cubans with basic health services and good nutrition.

However, by declaring health and education priority areas in his administration, Castro has been able to provide good education and excellent medical care to the Cuban population. Indicators for both education and health care in Cuba are now among the best in the hemisphere.

At the same time, Castro eliminated public dissent and kept tight controls on the economy. The Castro government’s economic policies and huge defense expenditures have not allowed Cubans to improve their quality of life.

Although basic needs have been covered, Cubans’ standard of living has remained practically unchanged since the revolution in 1959.

The embargo has allowed Castro to keep a strong rein over the population while rallying Cubans behind him in his dispute with the U.S. Maintaining the embargo has been actively supported by the Cuban exile community, particularly in Miami. Their efforts to undermine the Castro regime have proved to be counterproductive, since they haven’t noticeably weakened the Castro regime or turned the population against him.

Nor has the embargo benefited the U.S. In fact, U.S. businessmen have been unable to establish normal trade relations. The embargo has been repudiated throughout the world, and several United Nations’ resolutions have demanded that it be lifted, a decision that has been repeatedly ignored by the U.S.

Curiously, although Cubans in Cuba have been clearly harmed by the embargo, they are able to differentiate between political decisions of the U.S. government and the American people.

In visits to the island on U.N. health-related missions I had the opportunity to meet Castro and talked to him at length on health issues, about which he was extremely well informed. So great was his apparent enthusiasm with regard to medical matters that I almost felt that he was a frustrated physician himself. He was obviously proud of the revolution’s accomplishments in the health area.

What is now the best course of action? Raul Castro is, without doubt, in firm control of the government and most probably eager to follow his brother’s policies. It seems highly unlikely that the U.S. embargo will hurt him more than it hurt Fidel.

However, any change of the guard is a good opportunity for a change in U.S. policy, and this would be a change at a time when the world is desperate for positive actions and for an amelioration in the widespread climate of violence. Now is the perfect time to try a diplomatic approach to Cuba and start a gradual process of lifting the embargo, conditioned on some positive actions of the new Cuban administration.

The new dialogue should consist of several phases to allow the development of trust and the implementation of actions conducive to the free movement of people between the U.S. and Cuba. Those initial actions could lead to the lifting of the embargo.

To persist in a policy that has shown no positive results is to continue a march of folly.