Lessons from the affairs of Cuban crocodiles

by Cesar Chelala

The recent finding that the seriously endangered Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) has been hybridizing in the wild with the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) offers a sobering lesson. It shows that there is no real antagonism between Cuban and American crocodiles, something that policymakers on both sides should learn, and lead their countries toward a friendly relationship beneficial to both.

Many things can be said about the U.S. policy toward Cuba except that the long-standing embargo is an intelligent way of solving the problems with that country. After the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 was passed in the U.S. Congress prohibiting aid to Cuba and authorizing the president to create a “total embargo upon all trade” with Cuba, the policy has been a resounding failure. Lifting the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba is now more imperative than ever if we want to create a more peaceful world.

Paradoxically, the only ones who have benefited from the embargo are the ones it was meant to punish, the Castro brothers. They have intelligently used the embargo to cover their own shortcomings, maintain their grip on power and keep Cubans railing against the U.S.

The embargo on Cuba has been criticized both at the international level and by national political leaders. Last October, the 192-member U.N. General Assembly adopted a draft resolution in favor of lifting the embargo; 187 countries voted in favor, two voted against and three abstained. This pattern has been the same for the last 19 years.

As early as 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy referred to the embargo as “inconsistent with traditional American liberties” and difficult to enforce. In 1975, Sen. Edward Kennedy said: “I believe the idea of isolating Cuba was a mistake. It has been ineffective. Whatever the reasons and justifications may have been at the time, they are now invalid.”

More than hurting the Castro brothers, the embargo has hurt the Cuban people’s health and quality of life. Because of the embargo Cubans don’t have easy access to all medications and some food items are in short supply. The lack of essential medicines have led to some medical crises and heightened levels of infectious disease.

“We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests,” Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indian Republican and the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in 2009.

Speaking at Southern Illinois University in 2004 U.S. President Barack Obama said: “I think it’s time for us to end the embargo with Cuba. It’s time for us to acknowledge that that policy has failed.”

Resuming normal relations with Cuba is particularly relevant considering that Cuba has begun exploratory drilling for oil in its territorial waters. According to some estimates, Cuba could become a major oil producer, a fact to take into consideration as traditional sources of oil for the U.S. have become less reliable.

And while the U.S. continues its policy of antagonism toward Cuba, the Chinese government has developed closer relations and vowed to increase its military relations with that country.

Cuba is still on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, along with Syria, Iran and Sudan. But U.S. experts in counterterrorism such as like Richard Clark, former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, says Cuba is on the list only for political reasons.

Support for the U.S. position on this issue is that Cuba supports groups such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), the Basque nationalist organization in Spain. However, last April, after talking with the ambassadors of Spain and Colombia in Havana, former President Jimmy Carter said: “The American allegations, the affirmation of terrorism, is a premise which is completely unfounded, and that is another aspect that the president of the U.S. could address.”

In June 2010, 74 Cuban political dissidents signed a letter to the U.S. Congress for a bill that would lift the U.S. travel ban on Americans wishing to visit Cuba: “We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.”

Normalization of relations with Cuba could also benefit the U.S. which is, even now, Cuba’s largest food supplier.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.