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Archive for Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Embargo’s end is inevitable

April 17, 2002

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Former President Jimmy Carter will go to Cuba, and the sky will not fall. The heavens will not part, either.

For all the commotion in some quarters of the Cuban exile community about Carter being a willing dupe in Fidel Castro's communist game of playing Mr. Nice Guy to get the U.S. trade embargo lifted, nothing Carter can do or say will really matter. If he brings up human rights and a few political prisoners are freed, that's wonderful but it's nothing new. It's a tactic the Castro regime has used for decades. The regime's oppressive laws will remain as they have despite open trade with Canada, Europe and Latin America.

The White House isn't going to budge either for moral reasons or convenient political ones to ensure Jeb Bush's re-election in Florida. Besides, by law, it's Congress that must make those changes, and the Cuban regime has been doing a fine job of courting anti-embargo supporters. The most President Bush can do is hold out a veto until Congress can overturn it.

Most Democrats long ago called it quits on the embargo, and Republicans in Congress whose states have a vested interest in selling wheat, soybeans, rice and other commodities to Cuba are clamoring for a change anyway. Carter's visit to Havana likely in May won't change any minds.

An end to the embargo is inevitable if not all of it then most of it. Congress already has been trying to chip away at its effects, trying to lift the travel ban, pushing for more sales of food and grains to Havana. I can list all the moral reasons we should uphold the embargo against a regime that quashes the human spirit, but I also can list all the practical reasons the embargo has been a convenient weapon for Castro to use to build up nationalistic pride. I'm not talking about the regime's billboards the irony isn't lost on visitors who see a decaying building with a billboard in front of it stating: "Revolution means construction!"

In the almost three weeks I was in Cuba, people from all walks of life, races and ages bad-mouthed the regime. In my very unscientific poll, maybe 10 or 15 of 200-plus people I talked to from taxi drivers to shop clerks, hotel workers, churchgoers, scientists, physicians, people who run home restaurants or rent rooms in their homes backed the status quo. And of those 10, five were government officials.

The vast majority yearned to be treated as individuals, not puppets, with inherent rights to speak up without fear of reprisals. They want to start businesses and earn salaries on a competitive wage scale, to save up and spend a weekend in a nice hotel.

"It's our country. We're the most educated, the most enterprising people in the world," one clerk in Havana told me. "So why does our revolutionary government bar us from staying at a nice hotel if we feel like it and can pay? Why are we paid so little for work that if done in another country would pay so much more? I've sacrificed for this revolution all my life. What has it gotten me? High-priced food at a few open markets!"

Another man whose family runs a restaurant said, "I don't want to be a millionaire. I don't want to take away from others. I think the revolution has done some very good things. Everyone should expect a free education and medical care and even a house. I just want to earn the money I work hard to make. I don't mind paying taxes, but don't tax me out of my livelihood. Every time we take a step forward, there's a new law to push all our hard work back."

One old woman who has no children wondered, "Why can't I leave my house to whomever I want when I die? Why does it go to the government unless I have direct family who can stay here? This was my grandfather's house. He worked hard for it."

Lifting the embargo won't change any of those things. Keeping the embargo hasn't changed any of those things. The truth hurts.

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