A week in America | 23 July 2021

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Martin Liptrot takes a look at the US embargo of Cuba and its impact it has had on the Caribbean island during COVID.

The US put its diplomatic and economic embargo of Cuba in place in the 1960s. It is the longest standing trade embargo in history.

By any measure, its intended goal of driving democracy on the Caribbean island has been what I would politely call – ‘somewhat unsuccessful’.

This week we have seen rallies and protests not only in Cuban-émigré hotspots like Miami but across Florida and other states, calling for greater freedoms and basic economic opportunities in the last remaining Communist-stronghold in the Americas.

Cuba holds a strange place in people’s hearts. And an even stranger place in many peoples’ understanding of the revolution and the history of the island.

As a UK university alum, I know there are those on the left who romanticize the island’s struggle – Che Guevara t-shirts, posters and berets have been a staple in student common rooms and halls of residence for decades. Anyone who has holidayed on the island will know there is a sad ‘Disneyfication’ of the struggle and ensuing revolution authored by the state which doesn’t stand up to very much scrutiny or go anyway to ease the blank stare of any of the thousands of hungry children hoping for food or a small donation from visitors.

Equally, there are those and their descendants who fled the island when the Communist revolution began who hold a falsely romantic view of a pre-Castro Cuba which doesn’t reflect much of the reality of ordinary Cubans working in agriculture or living in impoverished rural communities.

And there are those on the U.S. right who are bitterly opposed to anything which tags itself or aligns with the ‘C word’ – Communism.

Caught amongst the jostling of all these ideological stances are the Cuban people. Deprived of basic services, freedoms and opportunities for nearly a century under dictatorial regimes of various hues and personalities.

So what has brought the Cuban people’s situation to the front of the agenda this week? What else – COVID.

The island is in the worst grip of the pandemic anywhere in the Americas. With embargoes restricting the import of vital vaccines, medical equipment and supplies; with police-enforced lockdowns and restrictions on civil liberties being met with angry responses; and the loss of the tourism industry and the flow of remittances being sent to Cubans from friends and relatives abroad staunched, Cuba’s already fragile economy has collapsed further.

Inflation is running at 500%, hard currency is in short supply and aid from Russia and China and their satellites in central America which during the Cold War replaced the loss of US support has all but dried up.

On all sides, the politicians are making a mess of things.

In Cuba, the government refuses to accept international help in getting COVID vaccines rolled out, choosing to develop its own version, which it has failed to do and cost thousands of lives in the delays.

And when answers and practical policies are absent, ‘the blame game’ is in full force.

So out of touch are the nation’s elite rulers they recently opted to drag 90-year-old Raul Castro out from his retirement, dressed him in his khaki revolutionary uniform and COVID face mask, gave him a flag to wave, weakly, while the current leadership trotted out the old trope that all of Cuba’s woes are the fault of the U.S. embargo – a message still echoed through the remaining network of Castro apologists in national capitals and media networks.

President Joe Biden has called Cuba “a failed state” but there are many in his administration and on the left of the Democratic Party who seem to disagree. They are sending mixed messages with hollow platitudes of ‘solidarity’ – complete with clenched fist salutes no doubt – without much clarity about who or what they are standing alongside other than ‘the people’.

And there are those on the right, especially here in Florida, who are well-aware of the size and might of the anti-Castro Cuban lobby, especially in this a mid-term election year.

There are calls for the U.S. to send space hardware over the Caribbean to enable internet access to those protesting the regime. “Communism fears the truth” said Florida Gov. and presidential hopeful Ron De Santis (R) in a public letter to President Biden.  Most politicians in the sunshine state agree in condemning the Cuban government’s heavy-handed response to protests, but Sen. Rubio and Gov De Santis’ idea of turning the U.S. Embassy in Havana into a virtual internet ‘hot-spot’ and the ramping up of pro-U.S. radio broadcasts into Cuban airwaves seems more like a battle for control of the propaganda war rather than any serious solution to the crisis millions of islanders are facing.

It takes great bravery and acts of enormous human courage for citizens to take on oppressive regimes who use police and military force to stamp out protest. That so many Cubans are taking these steps today deserves much better than the World and particularly U.S. politicians bickering over domestic point scoring issues.

For me, while it would be a brave move, Biden should start to lift parts of the embargo – at least re-instituting the Obama reforms which Trump blocked when he arrived in the White House. I would hope the international community via the UN and others could bring global pressure on Cuba to open its doors to WHO and UNICEF, church-led groups and others to administer the necessary medical supplies and treatment through a ‘trade corridor’.

It isn’t often a celebrity makes much sense in these situations, but I think Cuban-American music mogul Pitbull got it about right this time:

“This isn’t about politics. This is about saving lives. This is about unity, not division. And bottom line, this is about taking action.” Viva la Revolución” – but which one?

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.