By Gabriela Rivero-
As of July 11th, 2021, Cubans have been taking to the streets in cities across the country in response to food and medicinal shortages, soaring prices and other anti-government grievances. The government’s long-term failings, especially in relation to its promises for reform on the island, have been exacerbated by the U.S. embargo and other Trump-era policies that severely affect the island’s economy and its people, besides providing the Cuban government with a scapegoat. In the following paragraphs, Gabriela Rivero analyses the impact of U.S. policy on the island whilst also reviewing the situation through her own personal experience, in the form of an open letter addressed to U.S. President Joe Biden.
July 15, 2021
Dear President Biden,
I am writing to you today to express my profound disappointment in your administration’s current stance towards Cuba. Prior to your election, you criticized President Trump’s policies towards the island and promised to change them. However, thus far the only progress made has been the issuance of a noncommittal promise that your administration will interminably “review” U.S.-Cuba policy and of your “support” for the Cuban people amid the recent protests.
As a Cuban-American whose grandparents fled shortly after the Cuban Revolution, as well as someone with a significant other and many friends in Cuba, I understand the deep hurt experienced daily by both the Cuban diaspora and those left on the island. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter remains that U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba—both the embargo and the policies implemented by President Trump—has only served to punish the Cuban people while leaving the Cuban government relatively intact. If you are truly committed to humanitarianism and human rights, President Biden, you will take politics out of the realm of rhetoric and into the realm of effective action by prioritizing Cuba policy, reversing the Trump-era policies towards the island, and doing what you can to end the embargo.
It’s important to note that Cuba has never had the chance to be truly independent, having passed directly from Spanish colonization to U.S. occupation. During the occupation, the United States used the Platt Amendment, which granted the U.S. the ability to intervene militarily on the island essentially as it saw fit, to subjugate the new Cuban Republic. It also coerced Cuba to accept disadvantageous trade policies; established the Guantánamo naval base, which today is a painful reminder of U.S. intervention; and ruled Cuba through a provisional government in which Cubans had little to no power or influence. Later, the United States helped install dictator Fulgencio Batista, and under Presidents Eisenhower and especially Kennedy, worked to interfere in Cuban affairs through the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion, the enactment of the embargo, and numerous other attempts to bring Cuba into compliance with American objectives.
As of 2019, there are about 2.4 million self-identified Cubans and Cuban-Americans in the United States. According to Florida International University’s most recent annual Cuba poll, 71% of Cubans in South Florida—where the Cuban community in the U.S. is most concentrated—believe that the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed in its intentions. Most oppose the virtual abandonment of the U.S. embassy and the halt of consular services in Cuba, the suspension of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, and the travel restrictions enacted under President Trump. Furthermore, many believe in a non-embargo approach to changing the situation in Cuba via policies aimed at promoting the economic well-being of Cubans on the island. Additionally, though the United Nations has overwhelmingly voted to end the embargo against Cuba every year for the last twenty-nine years, the U.S.—save for the “thaw” under President Obama, which you claimed to still support during your campaign—continues to defy the interests of its citizens, island Cubans, and the international community by maintaining the embargo and enacting more harmful policies.
Furthermore, current U.S. policy towards Cuba has curtailed American travel to the island, separating loved ones and making it nearly impossible for much-needed supplies to reach the island. It has also inhibited Cuba’s ability to raise revenue through tourism and the hospitality industry and has all but eliminated one of the most valuable forms of cultural and educational exchange between the two countries. The suspension of consular services and of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program has caused a major immigration backlog that forces Cubans to go to a third country to even apply for a visa—an additional cost that most cannot afford to pay—impeding both family reunification and Cubans’ general ability to immigrate to the United States through established channels. This is one of the direct causes of the increase in irregular Cuban migration to the U.S., which has resulted in horrendous abuse and the loss of countless lives. Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas’ recent announcement that Cubans who arrive in the United States by sea will be turned away, even if they demonstrate credible fear of persecution, is a violation of U.S. asylum law and human rights that demonstrates how hypocritical your “support” of the Cuban people truly is.
Additionally, the elimination of the ability to send remittances—a key source of income for many Cubans—from the U.S to Cuba has exacerbated the economic situation on the island, and the embargo has to a certain degree tied the government’s hands. This is because the five laws that compose the embargo—the Helms-Burton Act, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Trading With the Enemy Act, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996—both directly and indirectly limit Cuba’s ability to trade with and borrow credit from other countries, accept American investment, access international loans through organizations like the International Monetary Fund, and improve infrastructure. While exports of food and medicine are exempt from embargo restrictions, other stipulations force Cuba to overpay for imports of basic goods (like food and medicine) from other countries. The curbs on investment and other policies that limit the collection of revenue also stunt Cuba’s infrastructural and industrial development, costing it $9.1 billion in losses this year alone according to Reuters.
Having said this, the Cuban government is certainly at fault for many of Cuba’s past and present problems, especially in relation to its blatant disregard for human rights. I have had family members tortured, unjustly imprisoned, and killed under Fidel Castro shortly after the Revolution. I also have close friends and acquaintances who in recent years have been monitored, placed under house arrest, beaten, disappeared, unjustly imprisoned, and forced to flee due to their support of various human rights causes and other issues that do not align with the Cuban government’s agenda. Furthermore, I was in Cuba in 2018 when the government decided to rewrite the Cuban constitution and held town halls across the island to collect public comments. I saw how certain suggestions—such as removing the word “Communist” from the description of the island’s political system—were skillfully ignored or downplayed because they were too progressive and/or went against the “spirit of the Revolution.”
Promises of equality in healthcare, education, and other integral spheres of life often go unfulfilled, corruption runs rampant, and access to information remains tightly controlled. In short, the government’s obligation—as outlined in the constitution—to provide Cubans the “right to life, physical and moral integrity, justice, security, peace, health, education, culture, recreation…and…holistic development” is woefully violated every day.
While the Cuban government is certainly guilty of many crimes, the fact that U.S. policy limits its options to adequately meet its citizens’ needs cannot be overlooked or understated. What’s worse, U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba has historically acted and continues to serve as a convenient excuse for the Cuban government’s own failings, as highlighted by this week’s events. In a televised address on Monday, President Díaz-Canel tried to attribute all blame for Cuba’s current state to U.S. policy without really acknowledging the Cuban government’s contributions to the issue.
Like so many others, I have been personally affected by these policies. It’s incredibly difficult for me to travel to Cuba to visit my boyfriend of two years, and impossible for him to come to the U.S. to see me. If at all possible, it’s prohibitively expensive to send him and other Cuban friends supplies, and because of the restrictions on remittances, they are largely unable to afford the scarce products available.
President Biden, I recognize that you have many issues to balance, but I reemphasize that Cuba should be one of your administration’s priorities. Each year the island descends further into crisis; the only way forward is to end U.S. hostility and engage with the island, as neither an open dialogue with the Cuban government nor efforts spearheaded by the Cuban people themselves can affect significant change under current U.S. policy. Supporting Cubans’ “clarion of freedom,” as you’ve said, is incompatible with maintaining, to quote the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the “draconian conditions of isolation and hunger” resulting from current U.S. foreign policy.
Thank you very much for your time,