An anomaly and an anachronism
This week marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two superpowers of the day, the USA and the USSR, were engaged, at the height of the Cold War, in arguably the most dangerous game of political chicken ever.
Temperatures were running high in Cuba following the failed, US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, aimed at overthrowing the Communist regime of Fidel Castro, in April 1961, and other hostile moves. Amidst Cuban fears that another invasion attempt was imminent, the Cuban and Soviet governments secretly began to build bases in Cuba in August 1962, for the deployment of Soviet missiles within striking distance of the USA. When, on October 14, an American spy plane secured photographic proof of what the Soviets were up to in Cuba, the world was on the brink of nuclear war.
The Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had felt that the new American President John F Kennedy was too weak to stand up to the USSR but he was wrong. More felicitously, both President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev recognised that there was nothing to be gained from a nuclear holocaust.
50 years later, the Cold War is over, the USSR is no more, Communism, such as it is nowadays, is alive in barely a handful of countries and the USA enjoys varying degrees of diplomatic and trading relations with its erstwhile enemies from the old Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc. Cuba, however, the lone Communist outpost in the Americas, is still paying the price for its temerity in challenging US hegemony in the hemisphere and for being a constant reminder, just 90 miles from Florida, of the failure of US policy over the decades to force political change on the island.
Nothing is more representative of official US hostility towards Cuba than the commercial, economic, and financial embargo, first partially imposed in 1960, then strengthened to a near-total embargo in February 1962, codified into law as the Cuban Democracy Act in 1992, further strengthened in 1996 through the Helms-Burton Act, expanded by the Clinton Administration in 1999 and, most recently, in September 2011, extended by President Barack Obama under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
Despite signs that President Obama, early in his term, was interested in improving relations with Cuba by taking steps to relax some restrictions on contact, it appears that he did not feel confident enough at any time during the past four years to push for a domestic political consensus on lifting the embargo, without major Cuban concessions on democratic reform and improved human rights. After all, the power to overturn the embargo rests with the US Congress and not the Administration.
On November 13, the UN General Assembly is expected to vote for the twenty-first consecutive year for the lifting of the embargo. This continues to be a major plank of Cuban foreign policy and, on Tuesday, the Cuban mission to the UN again denounced it, focusing on the damage done in the health and food sectors. And even though an economic cost has been put to the harm done by the embargo, one would imagine that the human cost is incalculable.
Also on Tuesday, the Cuban government announced the lifting of requirements for its citizens to obtain an exit visa to leave the country. Ironically, this means that, subject to the issue of visas, Cubans theoretically have more freedom to travel to the USA than Americans have to travel to Cuba.
Developments in Cuba over the past few years have pointed to a managed process of structural change, under President Raúl Castro, aimed at economic survival and recovery, in the context of balancing the imperatives of keeping the Revolution alive and securing the future. All this, however, despite the embargo, not because of it, as there is no evidence to prove that the embargo, in its 50 years, has achieved any success in effecting democratic reform or improving human rights in Cuba. Nor is Cuba willing to accept the lifting of the embargo as a condition for change, for Cuba has always regarded it as “a unilateral act of aggression that must be ended unilaterally.” In other words, its removal is non-negotiable.
The embargo, as a Cold War leftover, is an anomaly and an anachronism. Its removal is long overdue. Nothing will change, however, with the US elections so close and regardless of who wins, it may be a while yet before the next Administration’s policy towards Cuba is reviewed.