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The Cuban embargo and you

| Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The past few months have seen the largest Ebola outbreak in history. Though the epidemic is largely contained to three West African countries, there has been a global medical response to fight the disease before it spreads further. Taking the lead in yet another international humanitarian crisis has been the usual suspect: Cuba.

As the recent outbreak intensified, Cuba was the first country to commit a substantial response team and remains the country with the largest force, having already sent 165 of a planned 460 doctors and nurses. It’s an old role for Cuba, which took the lead in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and dozens of other global disasters. With tens of thousands of medical personnel deployed around the world, Cuba’s humanitarian internationalism is unparalleled, especially given its population of only 11 million people.

This is a side of Cuba that the average U.S. citizen rarely hears about. More than two decades after its Cold War with the Soviet Union ended, the United States is still locked in conflict with its last true global, political and economic adversary. The upshot of this for the average American or Cuban is that the United States has placed a nearly comprehensive embargo on the socialist island. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act and several other laws, it is illegal for U.S. citizens to do business with Cuba or even travel there without special permission. Only Cuba is classified as an enemy of the United States under this doctrine. The oft-cited reason is the Cuban state’s human rights violations, but that excuse hides the truth.

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was marred by inequality, with life divided between the wealthy socialites in the casino town of Havana and the dispossessed peasantry and working classes who suffered malnourishment and exploitation. Land ownership was highly concentrated, with a great deal controlled by U.S. owners. A series of land reforms instituted by the new revolutionary government sought to redress these social ills, and in doing so threatened to destabilize U.S. economic dominance of the region. While some have cast it in light of the old Cold War, the embargo continues to serve its initial purpose — punishment against a government that seized property from U.S. landowners and a warning to any others thinking of doing the same.

The Cuban Revolution was itself a reaction to decades of U.S. imperialism. In 1954 Guatemala, democratically-elected President Jacobo Árbenz instituted moderate land reform policies — angering the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita. The Dulles brothers, Secretary of State and head of the CIA, had major investments in the company and pushed the United States to overthrow Guatemalan democracy and prop up a series of brutal military dictatorships in order to reverse the land reform. Che Guevara, a future leader of the Cuban Revolution, was in Guatemala City at the time and came to feel that only violent revolution could free the people.

The United States government has often overthrown democracies to protect the economic interests of its wealthy elite, in 1953 Iran, 1954 Guatemala, 1973 Chile and a dozen others, including a failed attempt in 2002 Venezuela and a success in 2009 Honduras. The decades-long blacklisting of a whole country is part of that tradition.

It would be dishonest to claim that the Cuban state has not engaged in political repression. The degrees of repression have varied over time and have not been as comprehensive as the U.S. claims, but the fact of repression is indefensible. However, the United States is not embargoing Cuba because of human rights. Throughout the period of the embargo, the United States has befriended dictators, mass murderers and enemies of human rights — from Chile to Indonesia to Saudi Arabia. Cuba has been kinder to the poor than Pinochet, kinder to opponents than Suharto, kinder to women than King Abdullah.

In fact, Cuba has recently been ranked the second best country in the Americas for women, behind Nicaragua and ahead of Canada. It has provided the basic necessities of life for all of its citizens, plus comprehensive education at all levels, the democratization of the arts and the best medical system in Latin America. Cuba poured hundreds of thousands of soldiers into Africa to fight in national liberation struggles and stood up for Mandela when the CIA was hunting him down. When humanitarian disasters strike, Cuban doctors are the first ones there, and they come in force.

My ideal society does not look like Cuba, with its strong state power. However, Cuba is not my enemy. It is the enemy of wealthy landowners and corporate interests, who tell us, “You’re in the free world — now you better not leave it!”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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