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The US, Cuba and the price of friendship

| Monday, November 2, 2015

As a student at a Catholic university, would you go on a study abroad program in a country that limits religious practice and freedom of expression? Several colleges around the country have arranged new exchange programs with schools in Cuba since the White House eased travel restrictions to the island early this year. But they are treading carefully, citing concerns about academic freedom.

It’s a guardedness that many politicians also feel towards the U.S.-Cuba thaw, which began when President Obama announced late last year that the U.S. would restore full diplomatic ties with its old Cold War foe for the first time in more than 50 years.

This year has seen important milestones in their new relationship. In January, the White House loosened some travel and trade restrictions against the island. In May, the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state-sponsored terrorists. In July and August, both nations cheered as they raised each other’s flags during the re-opening of embassies in Washington D.C. and Havana.

But not everyone shares the Obama administration’s enthusiasm. Despite the president’s pleading, Congress still won’t budge on lifting the decades-old economic embargo against Cuba, which costs both nations billions of dollars each year.

Ending the embargo would open up a market of 11 million people sitting only 92 miles off our coast. For the U.S.’s manufacturing and telecommunication sector, Cuba’s decayed infrastructure and low Internet penetration rate make the island fertile ground for business.

For Cuba, fully normalized relations could be a boon for tourism and the cigar industry, but most importantly, it would give its citizens access to technology, medicine and affordable food that hasn’t reached them in half a century.

Just last Tuesday, the U.N. General Assembly voted 193-2 in favor of a resolution condemning the embargo — with only the U.S. and Israel voting against it. But while international pressure is mounting, Congress won’t get on board.  

Behind the U.S.’s isolated stance are layers of diplomatic complexity. Understanding why it’s been so hard to achieve fully restored relations gives us the chance to ask important questions. What are our values as a nation? What do our decisions signal to other nations? How much are we willing to compromise for the sake of friendship?

After all, the conditions the U.S. has required to lift the embargo  legalizing all political activity, committing to free and fair elections, granting freedom of the press, releasing political prisoners, among others — have not been fully met. The government did release 53 key political prisoners early this year and announced it would release 3,500 more ahead of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the island in gesture to the pontiff, who was a key behind-the-scenes mediator in the early negotiations.

But during his visit, Cuban security forces also detained over 100 pro-democracy activists, allegedly to prevent them from disrupting the Pope’s services. Pope Francis, too, never met with them and never directly criticized the government in any of his speeches. The dissidents, who had hoped the Pope would make a call for greater human rights protection, later expressed disillusionment at his mild language.

These are criticisms the dissidents have also raised against the many U.S. officials who visited the island this year without meeting with them. Perhaps putting the issue of human rights on the back burner is the only way to make progress in negotiations, but many Cuban-Americans— most notably Florida senator Marco Rubio — feel this is not only unethical but also futile, as the regime’s performance has only worsened this year.

Will commercial ties with the U.S. lead to a democratic transition in the island, or will Cuba become — like China — another authoritarian trade partner? The future is uncertain.

Maintaining the embargo keeps the pressure on Cuba’s president Raul Castro to allow more democratic freedoms, but lifting it could also take away his ability to blame U.S. sanctions for the poverty and food shortages on the island and make him take responsibility.

Lifting the embargo could lead to better relations between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas — especially the left-leaning countries with close ties to Cuba — but it may send mixed signals about our own commitments to democratic freedom.

Is it hypocritical of us to demand better human rights protections while we reject Cuba’s demand to hand back Guantanamo Bay? Is it fair to maintain sanctions that make U.S. medications inaccessible or needlessly expensive just to make a point?

The U.S.-Cuba thaw is a delicate dance of give-and-take. For now, it remains painfully slow.

The Kellogg Institute is hosting a current events discussion, “Cuba, What’s Next?” tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies (Room C103).

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s only and do not reflect those of the Kellogg Institute. Maria Oviedo is a guest columnist who works at the Kellogg Institute. She can be reached at [email protected] 

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

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