The American flag was raised at the U.S. embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years Friday, opening the door for a new relationship with the country. (nbcnewyork.com photo)
It’s been half a century, but a symbolic change has come to Cuba at last.
Following Friday’s historic raising of the U.S. flag at the American embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years, the U.S. needs continue down the path to normalize relations with the island nation. Conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are right that human rights violations should not be swept under the rug — a point Secretary of State John Kerry made in his speech at the flag raising as well — but additional steps to normalize relations should take precedence over continuing the embargo that has harmed the Cuban people, not the country’s leadership.
Not solely because of the flag raising in Havana, the country has also been a topic recently because Rubio, who is Cuban-American, gave a foreign policy speech at an event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York City the same day that Kerry spoke. In predictable and ideological fashion, the 2016 Republican presidential candidate blasted the Obama administration for making deals with the “tyrants” who lead Iran and Cuba.
Rubio said the president was being “duped” by Cuba’s leadership, and as the first move in a three-point plan vowed to roll back the administration’s policy on his first day in office.
“In the eyes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Cuban people are suffering because not enough American tourists visit the country,” Rubio said, “The truth is the Cuban people are suffering because they live in a tyrannical dictatorship. In Cuba, we face proudly anti-American leaders who continue to work with nations like Russia and China to spy on our people and government.”
And of the Cuban leaders, Rubio said they are people “who harbor fugitives from American justice; and who stand in opposition to nearly every value our nation holds dear by violating the basic human rights of their own people, preventing democratic elections, and depriving their nation’s economy of freedom and opportunity.”
But his hawkish speech may be out of line with what a majority of Americans actually think. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll that was released the same day Kerry spoke in Havana and Rubio railed against normalizing relations found that Americans don’t really care about the Cuba policy of the next Commander-in-Chief. And a Pew Research Center poll in July found that more than seven in 10 Americans (73 percent) favor reestablishing relations with the country.
Gauging the political waters, as Obama and Kerry obviously have, the majority of Americans believe it is time to build ties to the country — not continue a decades-old policy that has only harmed the Cuban people.
The embargo was first imposed in October 1960, two years after the Fidel Castro-led coup overthrew the U.S. friendly Fulgencio Batista regime. The embargo strictly limits exports of American products to the country. It allows for food and medicine to be traded, but a scarcity of even basic goods has created a thriving black market. Additionally, the American-led embargo has discouraged other nations from trading with Cuba, and although quantities of food and medicine are allowed in, the amounts are not sufficient to meet demand.
In his speech in Havana, Kerry spoke to these realities and advocated that the remnant of the Cold War-era be removed.
“Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition in Cuba,” Kerry said. “It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact.”
Kerry reminded that the embargo can only be lifted by Congressional action. Incredibly, and in a sign of good faith from the Cuban government, Kerry’s speech was broadcast on state-owned television stations and translated for the country’s population. He sounded a familiar note in continuing a long-standing call from U.S. leaders for a “genuine democracy” and reiterated that Cuba’s people need to be allowed to choose their own leaders as well.
“We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish,” Kerry said.
He also touched on how the embargo has harmed Cuban entrepreneurship and business development as many new technologies are simply not available in the country. He cautioned that the reestablishment of relations is not a favor to the sometimes brutal and often repressive dictators of the country, and argued the best way to lift Cubans’ standard of living is by helping to develop an independent and thriving economy that can employ millions.
“The establishment of normal diplomatic relations is not something that one government does as a favor to another; it is something that two countries do together when the citizens of both will benefit,” he added.
In 2015, the Soviet Union is extinct and the People’s Republic of China are Communists in name only. While it remains important to put pressure on governments that repress their people, it is also time to more fully engage with our island neighbor that sits a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida.