Created on Thursday, 25 October 2012 03:41
Written by Rosie McKinley / Columnist
Cuban buses overflow with people. As a result of the country’s transportation crisis, riding a crowded bus in Havana is a bit like spooning with a bunch of strangers. But with reggaeton blasting through the speakers, the ride remains comfortable despite the Caribbean’s sweaty heat. After 50 years of austere socialism, Cubans gracefully manage the challenges brought by economic struggle, even if it means people’s hands stuck in others’ armpits.
While many of Cuba’s economic pains are self-inflicted, the Cuban people suffer further because of the United States’ draconian economic embargo against the country. This embargo is an outdated policy of dubious effectiveness that damages the U.S.’s reputation abroad. We should rid ourselves of it.
You should also take this issue into consideration when you vote. Despite the fact that Cuba has been largely overlooked this election, it is one area of foreign policy that President Barack Obama and presidential nominee Mitt Romney actually disagree on. If you’re failing to see much difference between the two on issues elsewhere, a Romney presidency would usher in entirely different policies in Cuba than those being pursued today.
The embargo began largely because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which reached its climax 50 years ago this week. The news that the Soviet Union was stockpiling nuclear weapons just 90 miles from the U.S. coast sparked the most volatile moments of the Cold War. Our parents found themselves hiding under school desks, fearing Armageddon; embargo seemed appropriate.
A half-century later, those school children are now middle-aged baby boomers nearing retirement. We, as a generation, are inheriting a much different America. The embargo is a relic; a festering wound of failed foreign policy that we have the responsibility to end in order to repair relations with our southern neighbor.
For one, the embargo hasn’t worked. It has failed in its goals of removing the Castro family from power and restoring democracy in Cuba. It has only created a humanitarian crisis that we are partly responsible for. Cuba remains a socialist country with Castro leadership, and we are left wondering why a policy that doesn’t work remains, especially considering the international disapproval it brings — the U.N. General Assembly has condemned the embargo for 20 straight years.
The Electoral College is partly to blame. The vast majority of Cuban-Americans live in Florida and New Jersey — two major electoral states in the presidential election, with Florida perpetually competitive. These are the people who lost property and wealth as a result of Castro’s revolution. To them, a harsh embargo is the only appropriate form of justice for Castro.
Obama, in a risky political move, has slowly been rolling away many of these programs, risking Cuban-American votes by loosening travel laws to Cuba. Working under the belief that we can’t improve relations with a country that we don’t understand, he has lifted many travel restrictions, allowing individuals to attain permission to visit. His policies allowed the Pitt in Cuba study abroad program to restart in 2010 after Bush-era restrictions forced the program’s termination.
Romney endorses a much different path forward, promising a return to the strict adherence of the Helms-Burton Act, which would strengthen the embargo to a point so anti-humanitarian that American allies from Great Britain to Argentina have condemned it. The act, signed by President Bill Clinton, bans trade with any trading partner of Cuba, even for medicine or food.
In the 1990s, while American children were growing up in relatively prosperous times, this act left Cuban kids to starve. There are stories of people melting condoms — which the Cuban government issued to keep population growth manageable — into cheap pizzas as a way of stretching their food sources. Although these stories are probably urban myths, their existence points to the awful circumstances that most Cubans lived in. Conditions were so awful that thousands of Cubans risked their lives to float through shark-infested waters on man-made rafts to reach the shores of southern Florida.
In America, they found increased freedoms. This is the great irony of the embargo: While we were banning investment in Cuba in the name of freedom, our government’s restrictions on travel were in a similar although lesser way preventing us from exercising our own. Also, while we attack the Castro government for limiting elections, many of us blissfully ignore the right we have here: Where is the embargo on the 45 percent of the country that doesn’t go to the polls just because we don’t feel like it?
Obama’s policy toward Cuba is far from ideal: Some form of embargo will be continued under a second term. Yet Romney’s proposed return to harsh repression does nothing to advance our countries toward a working relationship. Under Romney, we face the continued diminishing of our country’s international reputation. We become further distanced from our once-rumored greatness as a leader of the free world.
That said, if you strongly agree with returning to the harsh status quo that has done little to influence Cuban policies over the last 50 years, then vote against Obama. After all, voting either way is valuable.
Just ask a Cuban who can’t.