Time to grow up on the Cuba issue

There is scarcely a more foolish and needlessly punitive foreign policy in global politics than that employed by the United States in relation to Cuba. Despite it being twenty years this November since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the small island nation a few hundred kilometres off the coast of Miami is still being treated by the United States as public enemy number one. While it is lamentable that the hegemony of the brothers Castro does continue, the scale of the measures that the US continues to impose on its relationship with Cuba is out of all proportion and no longer serves any logical purpose or retains any moral support.

President Obama was quite cagey on the Cuba issue in the lead-up to his election last year. It is fascinating that he overtly talked up the possibility of having face-to-face discussions with Mahmoud Ahmaninejad of Iran and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, but Cuba received no such special mention or attention. Could it be that the prevalence of ex-Cold War combatants in US government circles and the Democratic Party have made Cuba something of a taboo foreign policy issue? Only historical hackles and an ideological war some twenty years buried would seem to stand in the way of these two nations forging a new, realistic relationship for the twenty-first century.

Promisingly, President Obama has just announced a lift of the ban on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. This move offers some hope for the future, but it does seem a curiously restricted step forward. It is a signal that Washington is not offering a carte blanche, but is expecting some action from Cuba in return before it will move to consider lifting the trade embargo.

It is also a signal that the United States is still very worried about “saving face”. Perversely, a change in policy now would be seen by many Americans (particularly the conservatives) as some sort of backdown or an admission of failure. Still, I would have thought that after all these years, the United States would be less concerned about “saving face” than kickstarting a useful new economic relationship with a country literally screaming for American imports. When one considers the economic orthodoxy on free trade that is celebrated by both the Democrat and Republican parties, and all of the tin-pot dictators the world over whose countries the United States is happily trading with, its position on Cuba seems even more ridiculous. That’s because it is.

Come on Barack, do something about it. This is one of those issues on which just a little effort and a little willpower could go a long way towards forging a real and lasting achievement for this fledgling administration.

Dictators are only wrong some of the time

One of my pet hates when it comes to politics or political commentary is when someone’s opinion is condemned because of who they are rather than what they are actually saying. This sort of behaviour perhaps stems from the simplification process whereby we tend to reduce people to being either “good” or “bad” in our minds. Consider for a moment the following names, and whether you would classify them on the whole as being “good” or “bad”. You might be surprised at what your first instinct is for each one, depending on what your political tendencies are:

  • The Dalai Lama
  • Adolf Hitler
  • John Howard
  • Malcolm Fraser
  • Bob Brown
  • Fidel Castro

Of course, if you are a lefty, you might not like John Howard, but would it really be fair to characterise him as “bad”, alongside, presumably, Adolf Hitler? Realistically speaking, of course not. Any reasonable, rational person who disagrees with the Howard Government’s work would be forced, after some consideration, to place him somewhere in the middle of the scale, perhaps arguably even on the positive side of even steven if you were feeling generous (though I can’t say I am). I would imagine that someone on the conservative side of the fence would have to feel the same way about somebody like Bob Brown. Sure, you might think he is a bit loopy, but compared to some of the names who fall firmly in the “bad” column, any reasonable critic would judge him as relatively unobjectionable.

I think Fidel Castro’s column in the Guardian today strongly brings this little conundrum to mind. The topic of the column, bizarrely enough, is Barack Obama and the Democratic frontrunner’s comments on the trade embargo with Cuba, which would reportedly be continued under an Obama presidency. Now while I think most of us would probably agree that Castro has done the occasional good thing in relation to his country’s health and education systems, I think we would also agree that his militant aversion to criticism and indeed democracy is disturbing and hopelessly out of step with the modern civilised world we live in. Having said that, it is hard to disagree with the central thesis of Castro’s argument here; that perhaps the United States should take a good hard look at its own recent record on foreign policy and hop off its high horse before so harshly judging Cuba and by association the Cuban people:

Is it right for the president of the US to order the assassination of any one person in the world, whatever the pretext? Is it ethical for the president of the US to order the torture of other human beings? Should state terrorism be used by a country as powerful as the US as an instrument to bring peace to the planet?

Is an Adjustment Act, applied as punishment to only one country, Cuba, in order to destabilise it, good and honourable when it costs innocent children and mothers their lives? Are the brain drain and the continuous theft of the best scientific and intellectual minds in poor countries moral and justifiable?

Is it fair to stage pre-emptive attacks? Is it honourable and sane to invest millions and millions of dollars in the military-industrial complex, to produce weapons that can destroy life on earth several times over? Is that the way in which the US expresses its respect for freedom, democracy and human rights?

Of course there are plenty of things that Castro could have done during his lifetime that would have left the country in a much better position than it is today. However, I think in this particular scenario, the United States should have the moral stature to ignoring the ancient ideological squabbles and start engaging with Cuba again. I am disappointed that Obama, of all people, feels the need to perpetuate what seems to be a cold war mentality in an era when the next missile crisis the world is going to face is going to be quite far from this little island off the coast of Miami.