Since Christopher Columbus first disembarked on the island of Cuba in the 15th century and brought infectious disease on an unsuspecting population — rendering indigenous people feverish and lifeless — foreigners have dictated Cuba’s destiny. The cornerstone of their approach has been remarkably consistent. Irrespective of which great power was at play, all have pursued a similar course of action: Might is right.
Little has changed in the intervening centuries.
Nowadays, U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba remains zero-sum. American leaders are expected to unilaterally criticize Cuba’s totalitarian government — or they’re depicted as concessionaries. American leaders are expected to apply maximum pressure by way of sanctions – or they’re labeled weak. Unsurprisingly, this rhetoric has ramped up in recent days, given the rare occurrence of protests on the island. What’s true is that repressive rule in Cuba is reprehensible — and the U.S. embargo has failed.
America needs a paradigm shift.
So long as our national dialogue remains embedded in black-and-white thinking, we reinforce a historic trend that elevates great power conflict and obfuscates the very real needs of human beings.
When they took to the streets, Cubans demonstrated against scarcity. Their grocery stores are empty of food, their hospitals devoid of aspirin and penicillin. Electricity blackouts ripple through neighborhoods and cast darkness on city streets and the hopes of a people. We fool ourselves into thinking that American foreign policy played no part in creating scarcity on the island. And yet Cubans remain caught in a maelstrom of foreign policy decisions that undermine their lives — for which the U.S. bears some responsibility.
Historically, the U.S.-Cuba relationship has been defined by asymmetry. The Cuban constitution itself once allowed Americans to directly interfere in the island’s domestic and foreign affairs. When the rise of authoritarian Fidel Castro undermined the U.S.’s ability to dictate matters on the island overtly, America employed a covert approach instead. But the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion made clear that our baseline goal — to dictate events on the island — remained out of reach. We are at an impasse and an embargo.
All the while, our foreign policy toward the island continues to lack that essential ingredient, without which broken relationships cannot be repaired: compassion. The U.S. embargo extracts enormous sacrifices from everyday Cubans and at a far greater cost to them than to those who rule the island. To defend our embargo on the grounds the current regime is oppressive and guilty of human rights violations is to ignore our nation’s historical support of President Fulgencio Batista, whose regime redefined the meaning of brutality. And that’s only a historical example. A simple scan of the daily news today illustrates that we, as a nation, continue to support oppressive regimes the world over.
When will we learn that might does not make right? So long as our foreign policy dictates rather than discusses, and confronts rather than converses, we cannot create change for folks on the ground. Our foreign policy is paternalistic and dismisses the value of communication. The underlying principle that applies among people applies across nations: Just as we cannot corner a colleague or neighbor into a lifestyle change by cutting ties, so, too, we cannot overcome historical and ideological differences by way of an embargo.
Even a middle schooler knows the silent treatment doesn’t work.
This week, President Biden announced targeted sanctions against Cuban officials who were deemed responsible for human rights abuses during the government’s crackdown on protestors. Approaching the complex dynamics in Cuba with a scalpel is more helpful than a blanket embargo, although that remains in effect.
I urge the president to normalize relations with Cuba along the trajectory begun by President Obama, and to roll back the egregious restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, which have only served to exacerbate the economic and humanitarian crisis Cubans face today.
More than 500 years have elapsed since Columbus first stepped onto the shores of Cuba. By now, we ought to recognize that might isn’t right. It’s high time we harnessed instead the power of mercy.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) is a senior member of the Judiciary, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Oversight and Government Reform committees. He is chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. He is also an outspoken defender of civil and human rights both in the U.S. and around the globe.