The United States’ abstention on a resolution to end its economic embargo on Cuba—a first after opposing it for 24 years—is an implicit acknowledgement of the wrongfulness of such a measure. It has brought considerable and unnecessary suffering to the Cuban people and hasn’t brought any positive results to the US.
Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said in September that damage from the embargo between April 2015 and March 2016 amounted to $4.6bn and equates to $125.9bn since the beginning of the embargo more than 50 years ago. By maintaining the embargo, the US has been a target of derision throughout the world, as shown by the repeated and overwhelming United Nations assembly decisions against the embargo in the last 24 years.
Over the course of repeated visits to Cuba, I was able to observe the impact of the embargo on the Cuban people. During my first visit to Cuba in 1981 to attend a public health-related meeting, I witnessed an unusual incident. As friends and I walked into the Bodeguita del Medio—a traditional restaurant famous for its many illustrious visitors over the years (Hemingway was a frequent patron)—a young Cuban male was discreetly asked to leave.
Realising we weren’t locals, the young man began ranting against government restrictions on Cubans. “I have money,” he told us. “But they prefer foreigners to eat and spend their money here. I am fed up with this regime.” As we were observing the scene, he asked us, “Do you see something in that corner?”
“Yes,” I said, “there is a man standing there.” “You are wrong,” he replied. “He is not a man. That’s a gigantic ear listening to everything I say to you. But I don’t care. I am so sick and tired of this situation.”
In those few minutes, I got a first-hand sense of the problems besieging Cuban society: the need for foreign money, the oppressive nature of the regime, and the dissatisfaction of the country’s youth. These impressions were later confirmed during a later visit to the island when I headed a UN mission to assess the progress of Cuban scientists in developing interferon, an antiviral substance.
Highlighting the Cuban government’s shortcomings doesn’t diminish its achievements. During my last visit, I met Fidel Castro. Although we didn’t raise any political issues in our conversation, I was able to assess his enormous interest in—and knowledge of—health issues. This interest and knowledge underlies the Castro’s government accomplishments in health and education.
Cuba, for all its other faults and drawbacks, is in the forefront in both fields when compared to other Latin American countries. And in some areas, it is on par with the United States. This progress, however, has been hindered by the unnecessary and ineffective embargo against the country, a situation that has cost the United States materially. In addition, the embargo has hurt US prestige among Latin American governments, which consider it a violation of a fellow Latin nation’s rights and sovereignty.
There is no doubt that political pressure from the powerful Cuban exile community in Florida has been an important factor in maintaining the US embargo. However, the descendants of that immigrant generation now have a more nuanced view of the Cuban regime. In particular, they have seen the damage caused by decades of antagonism between both countries—and are eager for friendlier relations between them.
While Cubans have always been clear about their admiration for the American people, which I have observed first hand during my visits to the island, the embargo has fostered more hate and mistrust of the US government than of the Cuban government among Cubans.
If votes in the UN general assembly are a test, no country in the world now supports the embargo. President Barack Obama has wisely eased restrictions on travel to the island by Cubans and their descendants living abroad. This policy should be followed by an intense exchange of scientists, doctors, artists and ordinary citizens. The effect would be dramatic in neutralising the atmosphere of antagonism and should be followed by the rapid lifting of the embargo and the complete normalisation of relations between both countries.
Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a winner of several journalism awards.