In conjunction with Cuba’s actions, 55 years of The United States’ attempted isolation of the Cuban government have produced a surreal social, political, legal and human landscape fraught with contradictions. As in a Gabriel Garcia magical realism novel: birds fly backwards and it rain falls up in so far as U.S. – Cuba relations are concerned.
The absurdities of “The Cuban Adjustment Act”
Notwithstanding that it is the object of the most comprehensive U.S. trade embargo extant, Cuba is a customer of U.S. agricultural products on a significant scale. The U.S. is currently an important exporter of food commodities to Cuba; If you have a chicken cutlet in Havana, the bird in all likelihood is of U.S. origin. Although travel has been tightly regulated under the embargo, over 400,000 U.S. visitors made their way to Cuba in 2013, mostly comprising Cuban Americans. On any given day, more than a dozen flights depart Miami International Airport for different destinations around the island. The nightmarish quality of the travel restrictions is made evident by the four-hour bureaucratic ordeal worthy of an 18th century Balkan border crossing, which anxious Cuban-Americans and Cubans must endure to complete the 156-mile hop to Havana.
Until recently, obtaining an authorization for a “people-to-people” travel license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury under the Byzantine provisions of 31 C.F.R. 515. 101 et seq., the regulations which govern the issuance of exemptions from the Embargo, is a separate chapter in the surrealist novel. A hefty filing, with substantive supporting documents, including minutely-detailed travel agendas, the curriculum vitae of some of the parties involved, and attestations of non-involvement with members of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party, must be submitted in advance of any proposed activity. After a tortured and protracted multi-agency review, the approval, like a Willy Wonka Gold bar, would emerge (or not) from the bowels of the U.S. Treasury. The licenses were valid for no more than two years and the applicants are subject to stiff penalties if they stray from the approved program. Financial transactions, generally limited to family remittances, nevertheless accounted for over $3.5 Billion U.S. Dollars of inflow for Cuba.
The list of absurdities, anachronisms and contradictions, on both sides of the Florida Straits, goes on. Hard-line Cuban-American elected officials, left leaning groupies of the Cuban government, the Cuban government itself, and a growing number of sober, thoughtful, moderates agree that the Cuban Adjustment Act has reached the end of its useful life. At a time when US immigration policy is one of the political hot potatoes on Congress’s plate, Cubans enjoy a privilege which no other nationality of the world has under US law. A Cuban national who enters into the US by any means, legal or illegal, and sets foot on dry land, is immediately granted parole, released within a year and a day, and may apply for permanent US residency. This particular piece of legislation, a leftover (as most US-Cuba policy is) of the heady days of the Cold War, has resulted in some of the most Kafkaesque and tragic incidents between the two countries.
One unintended consequence of this law has been to incentivize the more desperate Cubans to launch themselves into the Florida Straits in rickety rafts to attempt to cross a particularly treacherous stretch of the Caribbean. We will likely never know the number of people who died of exposure and drowning in the attempt. Cuba is far from blameless in this: at times looking the other way, or actively encouraging the suicidal activity in pursuit of its political objectives. Beyond that, the law has resulted in a brain drain for the island. A stock, ironical response of a Cuban child when asked what he wants to be when he grows up is “a foreigner”. The final irony of this archaic legislation has been to provide a convenient escape valve that has allowed the Cuban government to rid itself of so-called “malcontents, misfits and anti-revolutionary rif-raff” whenever the internal political and social pressure reached dangerous levels. We should ask ourselves if the Lybian revolution would have taken place if Italy had a “Lybian Adjustment Act”.
Cuba at a crossroads
However, the results of a National bi-partisan poll conducted by the Atlantic Council, and a more focused poll by Florida International University, pointed the way to the recently announced re-casting of U.S. policy towards Cuba. By a solid majority of 56% nationally, and a surprising 63% in Florida, Cuba’s closest neighbor and home to close to a million Cuban-Americans, the American people support engagement or normalization of relations with Cuba. The proof of changing attitudes has been the muted and nuanced reaction by Cuban Americans to the policy change announced on December 17. In contrast to the reaction after the Elian González affair 14 years ago, there have been no significant demonstrations in the streets of Miami. The U.S. has changed its policy towards Cuba not as a reaction to any particular shift in the attitude of the Cuban government towards the U.S., nor as a reward for non-existent improvements in Cuba’s deplorable human rights record, but rather as a realistic, humane and rational undertaking which is in the best interest of both countries. The US can now focus on the real issues at hand.
Cuba is at a crossroads. A doddering Fidel Castro no longer rules with an iron fist, but he still interferes on occasion. Raúl Castro, not much younger, but more pragmatic and less dogmatic than his older brother, cracks down hard on dissidents while publicly acknowledging that the economic system that has resulted in the comprehensive decimation of the Cuban economy must be revamped. Well-intentioned technocrats have structured a series of reforms which have opened the Cuban economy to what amounts to proto-capitalist (gasp!) pursuits. More than 150 areas of economic activity are now open to entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, scandalized hard-liners within the party make the reform process a one step forward – two step back cha-cha. Recently, the government shut down blossoming home based 3-D cinemas complete with big screen TV’s, cardboard eye glasses and pop-corn machines brought by Miami relatives. Their crime was popularity, profitability, and better quality than competing government run enterprises. Meanwhile, whatever small industries and businesses do manage to survive in the arid landscape of state capitalism are in large part capitalized by those same pesky Miami relatives.
The end of the Revolution.
Changes to U.S. policy must be carried with a clear eyed view of the reality in Cuba. The Cuban government continues to crack down on dissidents, harbor fugitives from U.S. justice, and play footsie with the North Koreans; Who can forget the semi comical "find the Mig under the sugar " incident involving a North Korean tramp steamer, a suicidal captain and tons of ancient Soviet era weapons, hidden under tons of sugar bags? This is an authoritarian and comprehensively repressive regime. It is no ally of the U.S.
Nevertheless, Cuba finds itself losing its ace in the hole. Fidel Castro – its iconic revolutionary leader who gave the country a measure of internal cohesion and a doubtful but valuable external “cachet” among third world countries – is failing. The era of heroic struggles against Yankee Imperialism in the jungles of the Congo or the altiplano of Bolivia are long gone. Havana, a gem of a city, lies in ruins after 50 years of economic mismanagement. To add insult to injury, the economy of Maduro’s Venezuela is imploding and the collapse of oil markets raises the specter of another ally bailing out on its commitments.
More importantly, the old revolutionaries, to paraphrase Douglas MacArthur, are just fading away. The younger cadres are eager, poised: for an iPhone, an iPad, a decent place to live, a car – any car – and a good future for their families. The Revolution is ending, not with a bang, but with a long, tropical whimper. In keeping with its long relationship with Cuba, the US must be present to help the Cuban people choose their future freely. There is no need to engage in a sterile and divisive debate about the U.S. embargo; this is not about the embargo, nor is it about the Cuban government. This is the moment to give access to the people of Cuba to the tools and resources they need to build a vibrant, prosperous, and free future for themselves.
It’s time to share our freedom
This is the time to bring a new and fresh breeze to the Island. This is the moment for the United States to seize the initiative and break the vicious, dysfunctional cycle that the Cuban government manages so very well. It is time to do away with Cuban exceptionalism. We have engagement, relations and commerce with other deeply flawed governments; the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia come to mind. And we have these relations not because we applaud repression, aggression and obscurantism, but because it is in our best interest and the best interest of the citizens of those countries for the United States to be present, to be active, to be engaged and to be witness to all that takes place, good and ill, in the world. Only in that way can we fully participate and share our hard earned lessons of freedom, prosperity, tolerance and democracy.
The US should draw inspiration from the words of Cuba’s founding father and poet laureate,
I grow a white rose, in July and in January.
For the dear friend who tenders his honest handshake.
But for the cruel man who tears out the heart which is my life
I do not grow a thorn brush or a thistle;
I grow a white rose.
Let’s extend our hands across the Florida Straits to offer a White Rose to our dear friends, the Cuban people.