A recent four-day trip to Havana illustrated the complicated and indeed puzzling nature of Cuban-American relations.
The official United States policy is that we do not have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and we have maintained an economic embargo by which it is illegal for American corporations to do business with Cuba.
Current American policy, of course, dates from Fidel Castro’s coming to power in 1959, overthrowing the government of Fulgencio Batista. Castro’s expropriation of the assets of American corporations and his embrace of the Soviet Union as an alternative to American economic support for Cuba made relations with the United States difficult from the beginning.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which Cuba became ground zero for the closest brush with nuclear war that we have ever seen, cemented the bad relations for the last half of the 20th Century.
The Soviet support of Cuba lasted right up to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. That event shattered the economy of Cuba and many hoped would lead to normal diplomatic and economic relations between the United States and Cuba. But 22 years later, normal relations are still not in the cards.
In fact, with the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act (the “Torricelli” Law) in 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and Democracy Solidarity Act (the Helms-Burton Act) of 1996, relations have become even more difficult. The result is a patchwork of policies that appear to contradict one another and do not seem to be a sensible and rational policy for the United States to follow.
On the one hand, more than 200,000 Americans are now visiting Cuba on American Treasury Department-approved licenses annually. The sight of American Airlines planes dropping off and picking up American citizens at the José Martí International Airport in Havana seems at best surprising.
My trip, conducted by Insight Cuba, was one such officially approved trip. Further, there are now more than $2 billion of remittances sent by Americans to their Cuban relatives annually. So there are some points of progress in overall Cuban-American relations.
At the same time, there are many significant problems that tend to hurt the Cuban people most at risk in economic terms. The visit of a cruise ship to a Cuban port results in that ship being unable, no matter which flag registry the ship has, to dock in the United States for six months. This policy really hurts the Cuban tourist economy, which could greatly improve employment and job creation across Cuba.
If Cuban materials are used in the construction of cars (more than 4% nickel for example), these cars cannot be sold in the United States, a policy which works against the rise of an automobile-based manufacturing segment of the Cuban economy.
The American embargo has had, therefore, very significant impact on different parts of the economy in Cuba. In fact, such varied political leaders as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; George P. Shultz, former Republican secretary of state; and the late former Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, have called for the embargo to be lifted and relations to be renewed between Cuba and the United States. Even polls of Americans show a majority in favor of an end to the embargo and re-establishing of normal relations between the countries.
My own trip to Cuba reinforced the call for such actions. We spent four days visiting with many different kinds of groups in Havana, community projects, senior citizens, a health clinic, youth programs, artist and recording facilities, musical ensembles, historic sites such as Revolution Square and the Ernest Hemingway house and an environmental training facility, and not once did we hear anger toward the United States or the American people.
What we heard was puzzlement about the embargo and strong feelings that it was hurting the people of Cuba. In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the absolute poverty rate has increased significantly in Cuba. It was also evident that there is visible decline in major infrastructure areas such as housing.
Today, there seem to be both humanitarian and economic factors, particularly with the significant growth of the non-governmental section of the economy that could factor in a change in American policy. There is also a major diplomatic factor in that no other major country, including our allies, follows our policy.
What a positive statement for American foreign policy in Latin America and throughout the world it would be for the United States to end its embargo and establish normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. We would be taking both a humanitarian course of action and making a smart diplomatic gesture. The time is right and all our policy makers need is courage to bring about this change.
Eugene P. Trani is president emeritus and University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.