In a surprising move on December 17, President Obama announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba following the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. President Obama addressed Americans explaining that relations between the US and Cuba would be restored and travel and trade would be opened.
The US embargo against Cuba was enacted over 50 years ago at the height of the Cold War. This economic and diplomatic isolation was intended to prevent further spread of Communism, quickly dispose of Castro, and support a Cuban transition to democracy.
Yet the embargo, rather than cutting off Castro’s power, harmed the Cuban people. Castro remained wealthy while the Cuban people lived in poverty. Cuban farmers struggled without the ability to gain access to US farming equipment and machinery. Similarly, Cuba’s gross national product dropped tremendously, harming the economy and small business owners. Castro then used the embargo as a propaganda tool to justify the suffering of his people. Rather than achieving US goals, the embargo instead harmed the US image abroad and portrayed the US as a bully beating up a young child.
There are concerns with normalizing relations with Cuba, namely the fact that the communist party still heavily controls life in Cuba, leading to suffering and human rights violations that need careful watch. However, positive results of these new relations have already begun. Numerous political activists in Cuba have been freed, and talks have begun between the US and Cuba focusing on migration issues. This new relationship will also strengthen US relations throughout all of Latin America and improve the US image abroad.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have voiced concern and shed light on the political and moral issues of the embargo. Pope Francis helped facilitate the conversations and negotiations between the US and Cuba, recognizing the value in restoring relations for both countries.
In October I observed as the United Nations General Assembly discussed the embargo. Numerous countries condemned it including Argentina, Iran, Russia, Egypt, Colombia and Syria. At the end of the meeting a resolution was presented, and 188 of the 193 member states of the UN voted to end the embargo. Only the US and Israel voted against the resolution. For the 23rd year in a row, the UN had voted, almost unanimously, that the embargo was outdated, and harming the Cuban people, and should be ended.
In January I had the opportunity to meet with a representative from the Cuban Mission to the UN. When asked what Cuba’s biggest concern was, the representative answered immediately that it had been the embargo. She explained that Cuba is hopeful for this new change in relations and stressed its urgency, saying they cannot go back to the way things were.
After more than 50 years, the embargo has failed to provide desired results. It has reduced the ability and opportunity for the US and Cuba to interact, which would allow for understanding and growth in the diplomatic relationship. With President Obama’s announcement, a monumental change occurred between the countries. This policy was outdated and new changes were long overdue and necessary.
As people of faith working toward peace and justice, we must look at others around the world as our brothers and sisters. They too have lives, goals, and dreams. Disputatio, or respectful dialogue and negotiation, should be incorporated in every aspect of life, even politics and foreign relations, instead of holding on to a stalemated policy that is harming rather than helping. The UN discussions and votes on the embargo can be seen as a way to hear from others about the policy; it was obvious that there was strong support to end it. Flexibility and a willingness to adapt must be incorporated in the political arena; it is harmful to hold on to a policy for over 50 years that is simply not working. These relationships must be examined through a lens of understanding, rather than historical stubbornness and retribution. It is now time to reengage Cuba, entering into a conversation that will lead to strengthened relations, understanding, and improved human rights for all.