Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Castro, Tiant & the Cuban Embargo

With the news that Fidel Castro is resigning from his official position within the Cuban Communist Party, the final official position he held since handing over power to his brother Raul in 2006, discussion about the Cuban embargo will peak. Last week the Pew Research Center tweeted the results of a 2009 poll of Americans on the issue of the ongoing Cuban embargo. 52% of Americans asked say they favor re-establishing U.S. relations with Cuba. 33% of Americans asked said they support the continued embargo of Cuba, an embargo that has been in place since 1962. As Pew points out, Gallup polls have shown a somewhat higher number of Americans who support lifting the embargo (61% in 2008 and 67% in 2006).

Why we should lift the embargo has been a topic in politics for some time. Many Cubans and Cuban-Americans have been impacted by the long-time reign of Fidel Castro in Cuba. One such group that comes readily to mind includes long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant. Cuban-born pitchers have a long history of defecting to the United States to play Major League Baseball. Mention of the 2009 poll and the news of Castro's final resignation reminds me of a great documentary, The Lost Son of Havana, about the legendary Luis Tiant. Tiant's story is like many Cuban baseball players who chose to take the risk of defecting for the potential reward of a long, successful professional baseball career. Tiant was successful, but many never succeed and are left to figure out how to live away from home with no hope of returning. I highly recommend the film about Tiant's journey, both to the states to play in the big leagues as well as his journey back to Cuba with Castro's approval to see family he hadn't seen in decades.

On a night forty-nine years ago, President Kennedy sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, out to purchase Cuban Petit Upmann cigars before he signed the Cuban embargo into law (for more on Kennedy's cigars, I offer this). The Cuban embargo has been in place since. While we may think of the Cuban embargo in terms of what we cannot import and export too and from Cuba, the larger consequence of the Cuban embargo has to do with the Cuban people. After all, the purpose of the embargo was to punish the communist affiliations and activities of Cuba, particularly Castro, and in so doing indirectly punish pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans alike. In this regard, the Cuban embargo has been very effective.

As Time noted in a 1959 cover story on Castro, Fidel is "egotistic, impulsive, immature, disorganized" and has "confidence, physical courage, shrewdness, generosity and luck." Instead of using each of those traits for the betterment of his people and his country, Castro has used each to the detriment of those people and that country. His dedication to Cuban communism, a far cry from the communism that caused the Red Scare, inevitably led to that night in 1962 when Kennedy sent out Pierre Salinger in search of cigars. It also led to his country becoming the 109th country in GDP (per capita, $9,900 as of 2010), 167th in GDP real growth rate (1.5% as of 2010), 149th in industrial production growth rate (0.8%, 2010 estimate), 118th in exports ($3.311 billion as of 2010), and 88th in imports ($10.25 billion, 2010 estimate). The Cuban embargo, regardless of what the Cuban government says, has crippled the Cuban economy and has left a majority of Cubans living in a poverty that can hardly be compared to the rest of the world. None of this has improved in the five years since Raul Castro took the place of his brother as leader of Cuba. Will it now that Fidel has let go of his last bit of power?

With a small number of allies in the world, far fewer since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba needs the world. Perhaps now is the time.

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