We have so much to Learn from Cuba

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr

In this column, Robert F. Kennedy – son of Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy – looks behind the U.S. embargo against Cuba which, he argues, has been a “monumental failure” and is loaded with powerful ironies that make the United States look hypocritical to the rest of the world.

WHITE PLAINS, New York, Dec 30 2014 (IPS) – Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of a misguided policy which my uncle, John F. Kennedy, and my father, Robert F. Kennedy, had been responsible for enforcing after the U.S. embargo against the country was first implemented in October 1960 by the Eisenhower administration.

The move has raised hopes in many quarters – not only in the United States but around the world – that the embargo itself is now destined to disappear.

This does not detract from the fact that Cuba is still a dictatorship. The Cuban government restricts basic freedoms like the freedoms of speech and assembly, and it owns the media.

Elections, as in most old-school Communist countries, offer limited options and, during periodic crackdowns, the Cuban government fills Cuban jails with political prisoners.

However, there are real tyrants in the world with whom the United States has become a close ally and many governments with much worse human rights records than Cuba – Azerbaijan, for example, whose president Ilham Aliyev boils his opponents in oil, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, China, Bahrain, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and many others where torture, enforced disappearances, religious intolerance, suppression of speech and assembly, mediaeval oppression of women, sham elections and non-judicial executions are all government practices.

Despite its poverty, Cuba has managed some impressive accomplishments. Cuba’s government boasts the highest literacy rates for its population of any nation in the hemisphere. Cuba claims its citizens enjoy universal access to health care and more doctors per capita than any other nation in the Americas. Cuba’s doctors, reportedly, have high quality medical training.

“It seems stupid to pursue a U.S. foreign policy by repeating a strategy that has proved a monumental failure for six decades. The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over, and expecting different results. In this sense, the [Cuba] embargo is insane”

Unlike other Caribbean islands where poverty means starvation, all Cubans receive a monthly food ration book that provides for their basic necessities.

Even Cuban government officials admit that the economy is smothered by the inefficiencies of Marxism, although they also argue that the principal cause of the island’s economic woes is the strangling impact of the 60-year-old trade embargo – and it is clear to everyone that the embargo first implemented during the Eisenhower administration in October 1960 unfairly punishes ordinary Cubans.

The embargo impedes economic development by making virtually every commodity and every species of equipment both astronomically expensive and difficult to obtain.

Worst of all, instead of punishing the regime for its human rights restrictions, the embargo has fortified the dictatorship by justifying oppression. It provides every Cuban with visible evidence of the bogeyman that every dictator requires – an outside enemy to justify an authoritarian national security state.

The embargo has also given Cuban leaders a plausible monster on which to blame Cuba’s poverty by lending credence to their argument that the United States, not Marxism, has caused the island’s economic distress.

The embargo has almost certainly helped keep the Castro brothers [Fidel and Raul] in power for the last five decades.

It has justified the Cuban government’s oppressive measures against political dissent in the same way that U.S. national security concerns have been used by some U.S. politicians to justify incursions against our bill of rights, including the constitutional rights to jury trial, habeas corpus, effective counsel and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, eavesdropping, cruel and unusual punishment, torturing of prisoners, extraordinary renditions and the freedom to travel, to name just a few.

It is almost beyond irony that the very same politicians who argued that we should punish Castro for curtailing human rights and mistreating prisoners in Cuban jails elsewhere contend that the United States is justified in mistreating our own prisoners in Cuban jails.

Imagine a U.S. president faced, as Castro was, with over 400 assassination attempts, thousands of episodes of foreign-sponsored sabotage directed at our nation’s people, factories and bridges, a foreign-sponsored invasion and fifty years of economic warfare that has effectively deprived our citizens of basic necessities and strangled our economy.

The Cuban leadership has pointed to the embargo with abundant justification as the reason for economic deprivation in Cuba.

The embargo allows the regime to portray the United States as a bully and itself as the personification of courage, standing up to threats, intimidation and economic warfare by history’s greatest military superpower.

It perpetually reminds the proud Cuban people that our powerful nation, which has staged invasions of their island and plotted for decades to assassinate their leaders and sabotaged their industry, continues an aggressive campaign to ruin their economy.

Perhaps the best argument for lifting the embargo is that it does not work. Our 60-plus year embargo against Cuba is the longest in history and yet the Castro regime has remained in power during its entire duration.

Instead of lifting the embargo, different U.S. administrations, including the Kennedy administration, have strengthened it without result. It seems silly to pursue a U.S. foreign policy by repeating a strategy that has proved a monumental failure for six decades. The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over expecting different results. In this sense, the embargo is insane.

The embargo clearly discredits U.S. foreign policy, not only across Latin America, but also with Europe and other regions.

For more than 20 years, the U.N. General Assembly has called for lifting the embargo. Last year the vote was 188 in favour and two against (the United States and Israel). The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (the main human rights bodies of the Americas) has also called for lifting the embargo and the African Union likewise.

One reason that it diminishes our global prestige and moral authority is that the entire embargo enterprise only emphasises our distorted relationship with Cuba. That relationship is historically freighted with powerful ironies that make the United States look hypocritical to the rest of the world.

Most recently, while we fault Cuba for jailing and mistreating political prisoners, we have simultaneously been subjecting prisoners, many of them innocent by the Pentagon’s own admission, to torture – including waterboarding and illegal detention and imprisonment without trial in Cuban prison cells in Guantanamo Bay.

While we blame Cuba for not allowing its citizens to travel freely to the United States, we restrict our own citizens from traveling freely to Cuba. In that sense, the embargo seems particularly anti-American. Why does my passport say that I can’t visit Cuba? Why can’t I go where I want to go?

I have been a fortunate American. I have been able to visit Cuba and that was a wonderful education because it gave me the opportunity to see Communism with all its warts and faults up close. Why doesn’t our government trust Americans to see for themselves the ravages of dictatorship?

Had President Kennedy survived to a second administration, the embargo would have been lifted half a century ago.

President Kennedy told Castro, through intermediaries, that the United States would end the embargo when Cuba stopped exporting violent revolutionists to Latin America’s Alliance for Progress nations – a policy that mainly ended with Che Guevara’s death in 1967 and when Castro stopped allowing the Soviets to use the island as a base for the expansion of Soviet power in the hemisphere.

Well, the Soviets have been gone since 1991 – more than 20 years ago – but the U.S.-led embargo continues to choke Cuba’s economy. If the objective of our foreign policy in Cuba is to promote freedom for its subdued citizens, we should be opening ourselves up to them, not shutting them out.

We have so much to learn from Cuba – from its successes in some areas and failures in others.

As I walked through the streets of Havana, Model-Ts chugged by, Che’s soaring effigy hung in wrought iron above the street, and a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln stood in a garden on a tree-lined avenue.

I could feel the weight of sixty years of Cuban history, a history so deeply intertwined with that of my own country.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.

Licensed from Inter Press Service

related video added by Juan Cole:

Geobeats: “10 Fascinating Facts About Cuba”

17 Responses

  1. I find this a muddled and badly-written article that says very little of substance. The argument seems little more than an attempt to say US foreign policy was flawed but *Marxism is still a bad thing* and US policy helped that but the high literacy rates and great medical care are good but *Marxism is still bad* … Given the global picture and the US internal politics, deciding to lift the embargo now is a fascinating move – one which deserves a much more incisive analysis than this undergraduate essay. The ending two paragraphs are just embarrassing.

  2. The article is well reasoned. There seem to be contrary points about dictatorship vs. the necessity of a closed political system due to constant US subversion and domestic opportunists. Most of the facts seem to argue that their government is forced by the US to remain in a revolutionary command mode, not by choice. The conclusion there should await further evidence or investigation.

    Suggest some revision to avoid redundancy and organize the argument.

  3. I very much respect Mr. Kennedy’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, but the article should address the history of US terrorism directed against the Cuban people by Operation Mongoose – supervised by RFK senior.

    • That would of course require a very, very, very, very, very much longer article, which would then be subjected to literary criticism by some, silence by others that hope silence will let any ugly-reality taint just evaporate into “we can put all that stuff in the past like torture and wars of choice that we have sort of walked away from,” and deprecation by those who want to minimize decency and honorable behavior by others that point to the hypocrisy and evil of our own “war is nothing but a racket” Empire…

    • Re Operation Mongoose:

      RFK, Sr. sat on the panel that oversaw Operation Mongoose, a joint CIA-Army project that sought to destabilize the Castro government. Even after the Bay of Pigs, most liberal Cuban exile leaders, such as Manolo Ray and Harry Williams, formed positive relationships with RFK.

      After the JFK assassination, it was LBJ that curtailed much of the wild excesses of Operation Mongoose – over the protestations of RFK. The project itself violated the Neutrality Act and was later considered a policy failure.

      Noam Chomsky studied Operation Mongoose and issued a report in 1989 suggesting that it continued to operate all during the 1970s and there was no evidence that it was at any point discontinued as of the date of his report.

      Retired FBI agent William Turner, author of “The Fish is Red”, recognized that a non-enforcement agreement existed between the CIA, on one hand, and federal, state and local law enforcement authorities with respect to to violations of firearms, explosive and other criminal statutes that may have been committed by Cuban-American exile participants in Operation Mongoose. Some observers opined that the Mongoose program – also known as the “Cuban Project” – had been misused as a cover for exiles engaged in gun running and drug trafficking – something that RFK was publicly and adamantly opposed to.

    • “I very much respect Mr. Kennedy’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, but the article should address the history of US terrorism directed against the Cuban people by Operation Mongoose – supervised by RFK senior.”

      Operation Mongoose was specifically directed against Castro, not the Cuban People.

      • So, Bill, was Kermit Roosevelt’s displacement of Mossadegh specifically directed at Mossadegh, not the Iranian people? And that business in Nicaragua was aimed at Ortega, not the Nicaraguan people. And that fella in Chile, you imply personal knowledge about that situation, did it have a quaint operation moniker like “Mongoose?” Aimed at Allende only, not the Chilean people? How about Operation Iraqi Freedom? Aimed at Saddam only? Maybe the CIA should have put heavy metal powder in HIS shoes, so his MUSTACHE would fall out!!!! Cheaper than what actually has eventuated, no?

        I think the generic nomenclature is “regime change,” no?

  4. “Instead of lifting the embargo, different U.S. administrations, including the Kennedy administration, have strengthened it without result. It seems silly to pursue a U.S. foreign policy by repeating a strategy that has proved a monumental failure for six decades.”

    Kind of seems to apply to the whole globe-spanning swath of US Imperial policies, no? Start wars our World’s Best Military can’t win and does not seem to care, randomly overthrow seemingly democratically elected governments, turn loose engines of “innovation” that are making ever more dangerous and lethal technologies (anyone seen the “Terminator” series lately? and similar “fables?”)

    But a caveat needs to be applied — this “same insane behavior” has served remarkably well to trash “democracy” as most ordinary people think of the notion, and to destructively transfer many trillions of dollars of Real Wealth, created by the daily efforts of hundreds of millions of very ordinary people, to a small and increasingly compact set of disgustingly self-indulgent Gilded Agers and a wasting set of corporate “persons.”

    • The immediate purpose of starving Cuba and incinerating Vietnam may have been only to serve as a warning to the impoverished hordes of the entire rest of the 3rd world to not disobey Washington. I’ve heard it suggested that the Air Force knew Vietnam was lost long before 1973, but the last few years of bombing North Vietnam was simply to make an example of it.

      The question is, in the hearts of most Americans, is this really unacceptable? Wasn’t the invasion of Iraq irrelevant to the offense of 9/11? But we had to punish some
      Arabs because we all secretly understand that the Arab oil sheikhs bankroll the global jihadi movement but we don’t dare attack them directly.

      • Echoes of incinerating a lot of other places too? Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg? Too bad the basterds get to drag the rest of us ordinary people, who might wish for very different paths, along with them, and make us pay for it all, willy-nilly…

        • “Echoes of incinerating a lot of other places too? Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg?”

          Big difference between the fascist aggressors who committed huge atrocities in bombing London, Coventry, Rotterdam, and Warsaw (Germany); Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Manila, and Surabaya (Japan); and the allied bombing of German and Japanese cities in the attempt to stop the aggression.

  5. My question is, why didn’t China flood Cuba with golden briefcases 20 years ago and turn it into their floating bazaar? Surely they don’t respect our embargo. Unless Cuba is a bargaining chip in some larger deal we can’t understand. Because I guarantee the moment we lift sanctions the Chinese will have deals in place for everything.

  6. To an outsider – I live in the UK – it seems patently obvious that the US has upheld its trade embargo not because Cuba is a communist country nor because of its human rights violations but because it is peeved that the Cuban government stole land that used to belong to American citizens. And yet only one other country in the world, Israel, supports the trade embargo. Every other country condemns it. I have visited Cuba and it is a lovely place with lovely people. It is so sad to see the most powerful country in the world bullying it and empoverishing its citizens in a spat over its land.

    Much is made of Cuba’s human rights violations but America itself doesn’t come off very well when all thirty of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are considered, see Mapelcroft’s analysis in link to huffingtonpost.com. Cuba has more human rights violations than the US but only 50% more according to another source.

    • “It is so sad to see the most powerful country in the world bullying it and empoverishing its citizens in a spat over its land.”

      The United States embargo should definitely be lifted. But it is a myth that the embargo is “impoverishing” Cuban citizens. Every other country–Canada, Germany, France, Spain, and dozens of others–trade with Cuba and account for a great number of tourists. The Cuban people are impoverished by their own government’s economic policies, not by the U.S. embargo,

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