Time for US to lift Cuban embargo

Updated: 2010-09-21 08:18

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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At a conference call last week, Julia Sweig, an expert on Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic monthly, talked about their lengthy meeting in Havana with legendary Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Goldberg's article, titled Fidel: Cuban model doesn't work for us anymore, made headlines and also took a lot of heat after Castro said he was misinterpreted.

It might be worthwhile to find out whether the Cuban model works or not. But a much more critical issue is why the United States continues its 50-year embargo on Cuba, an embargo that hurt millions of Cubans and an embargo that has not worked for US leaders and its people.

Or is this embargo even human?

The answer is "no". The embargo on the island nation, only 144 km from Key West in Florida, has brought enormous hardship to the Cuban economy, society and its people. It has denied the 11 million Cubans of the opportunities to grow their country. It has taken away the necessary supply of food, clean water and medication from ordinary Cubans, women and children included. The embargo has not facilitated, but hindered economic growth in Cuba.

The US tries to justify its embargo as a punishment for the Cuban government. However, the appalling collateral damage inflicted upon the Cuban people can hardly be justified. It would be no exaggeration to call the embargo a humanitarian disaster.

The US has few allies on this issue. Every year since 1992, the UN General Assembly, which is meeting in New York this week, has condemned the US embargo as a violation of international law. Last year, 187 countries supported the vote. Only Israel and Palau backed the US.

Within the US, the call for lifting the embargo has also been growing stronger. Former US secretary of state George Shultz has called the continued embargo "insane".

Still, few Americans seem to think that the embargo is a violation of human rights or international law. US experts who advocate the lifting of the embargo would not describe the sanction as inhuman either.

But given the many protests on a host of issues these days, from immigration to war in Afghanistan, it is surprising not to see mass rallies calling for an end to this absurd Cuban policy.

The secret to the policy is a dirty but open one, since both US political parties have long been hijacked by votes from Cuban Americans in Florida, an important state during US presidential elections. It simply exemplifies how domestic election politics can ruin another country and the lives of its millions of people.

As a Chinese national, I was also not immune to the problems from the embargo. I was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 2004 and I had to give up my planned trip to Cuba since US rules would not allow a J-visa holder to re-enter the US from Cuba.

At that time, the punishment for American citizens was even harsher. Travel to Cuba was totally banned. Violators would be prosecuted. But several of my journalist friends still managed to go to Cuba via Mexico and Canada. The Cuban government would understandably not stamp their passports.

That was under George W. Bush, when US policy on Cuba was among the toughest in history.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised more engagement with adversaries including Cuba. Last year, Obama eased the restrictions on Cuban Americans to travel and send money to Cuba. The travel ban on all Americans is also expected to be lifted.

Still, this is not the great step forward that people expect from Obama over the issue. He has to show more guts to correct a decades-old policy disaster that has hurt not only Cubans but also US reputation worldwide. Obama should end the embargo completely and immediately.

As for US domestic politics, the timing for ending the embargo is also better than ever. More Cuban Americans now support lifting the embargo. Cuba has also recently released a group of "political" prisoners and announced economic reform.

For 50 years, Americans have been expecting dramatic change in Cuba. That has never happened. What they should really hope and pray now is a dramatic change in the US Cuban policy.

If Obama is a president for change, he should have heard the outcry.

Mr Obama, lift this embargo.

The author is China Daily's chief correspondent based in New York.

He can be reached at chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

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