Columns 2013

It’s simply not working, so stop it.

One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Here in America, we are treated to the proof of this adage through our ongoing War on Drugs and continuing Congressional budget dramas. It is also fairly evident in our endless Cuban embargo.

This is not meant to diminish the suffering of many, many people under Castro’s regime. But it seems glaringly evident that our embargo did not diminish the Castro brand in Cuba. Fidel has retired and his brother continues to rule the country. Given this reality fifty years after we started our embargo, sane heads would have to conclude that maybe we should try something different.

People from many countries with which we trade can recite horror stories that forced then to flee. Think of the picture of people frantically trying to climb into the last helicopter out of what was then Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese. Those people had been our allies in the war and now they faced horrible retribution if they stayed. Think of the Laotian people brought to America to escape persecution because they had fought the Pathet Lao on American’s side during the war. Cuba does not hold any special record on human rights abuses. It falls depressingly right in the middle of an all too large group of nations that persecute their own people for disagreeing with their government.

So if the embargo isn’t working, what might work? Well, it’s been my experience in travelling all over this world that giving people Coke, McDonald’s and jeans pretty much corrupts any pure socialist ideals they hold. As our guide in Viet Nam said in 1991, “The young generation doesn’t know about the revolution. They just want jeans and rock and roll.”

Cuba today bears all the markings of a country frozen out of economic opportunities. Havana was clearly once an unbelievably beautiful city. But it is now falling apart, balconies crumbling, mold growing up the walls of buildings with stunning facades. American cars of the 1940’s and 50s ply the streets, gorgeously refinished so that their colors gleam in the sunlight. Get close to those cars, though, and you see the rust and torn leather of the interiors. You hear motors that were never meant to be in a 1957 Cadillac convertible because the only engines available to repair the cars came from Japan and Korea.

The tour I took in Cuba was a people to people tour. It’s probably the first country I’ve ever visited where we were never brought to a museum or church or mosque. Instead, we were brought to venues where people gathered who spoke about both the good and the bad of their present situation. Clearly their pride was in their education and health care system. But, as an economics professor said while discussing Cuba’s future, they cannot work their way out of an economic depression on the backs of tourists or doctors graduating from their system and going to work around the world. They need to diversify their own economy.  They know the government cannot run everything. They understand that changes must come.

Imagine if America stood ready to help them make these changes. Imagine if those Cubans who fled the regime so many years ago could come to grips with the fact that it is highly unlikely, under any circumstances, that the Cuban government is going to apologize and give them back whatever was taken. Imagine, instead, how an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and dialog might actually open the door slightly on bringing Cuba into the modern world and eliminating some of those continuing human rights abuses because the eyes of the world would be watching.

Back in the day when I Love Lucy was everyone’s favorite sitcom, at least once an episode Ricky would say, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.” Our guide Martin “splained” to us clearly and concisely why so many Cubans would not give up the advantages they now have for education and health care, even while longing for more economic freedom. Unfortunately, we Americans could not offer an equally cogent “splanation” for why we still hold their country in economic thrall with our embargo.

The embargo hasn’t worked for fifty years. Time to move on to another plan.