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Fidel Won, So Lift the Embargo
“It does no good to continue to afflict the wretched. Forty-nine years of Fidel has come to a belated end. So too should 46 years of embargo” (Rev. Raymond De Souza).

On February 26, 2008, Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, met his first foreign dignitary, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. An odd choice for a regime that still does not permit full religious liberty, to say nothing of the full complement of human rights? It was merely a coincidence; Cardinal Bertone was already in the country, commemorating Pope John Paul II's visit ten years ago, when Fidel stepped down and Raul took over.

Raul Castro, President of Cuba
Photo, courtesy Wikipedia.

It was a bit humiliating. Ten years ago, when John Paul visited, expectations were heightened across the island. Fidel divested himself of his army fatigues and wore a suit, attended the papal Masses and had to hear hundreds of thousands of Cubans chant "liberdad." Would the winds of change that blew down the Iron Curtain blow over Cuba? No. The Pope went home, Fidel survived and ten years later, the Vatican chief diplomat meets Fidel's handpicked successor and meekly acknowledges that the recent release of some political prisoners was a "positive gesture."

Fidel survived, Fidel won. It was a victory that impoverished and imprisoned his people, but he was not overcome by those who attempted to bring him down.

Here in Little Havana, the news of Fidel's retirement, albeit on his own terms, has not been the earthquake it would have been even ten years ago. What decades ago was the heart of an exile community longingly looking across the Straits of Florida is now a quite unremarkable down-at-the-heels collection of fast food joints, payday loan outlets, laundromats and dollar stores. If not for the cigar shops where the product is rolled on the premises, there would be little to distinguish Little Havana from a thousand other poor American neighbourhoods. And even in the cigar shops, the photographs of Cuban landmarks on the walls are for what they now call the "old Cubans" – the dwindling few who remember the days before Castro.

Fidel outlasted even the exile community most implacably opposed to him. The Cuban exiles are Americans now. Over a half-million strong, they are an economic force, have moved up and out of Little Havana, and their fierce, once-monolithic anti-Castro policies are moderating. They would be a powerful force for the opening up of Cuba--if it were allowed.

It would be absurd if the one thing to outlast Fidel was the American economic embargo, implemented in 1962 in an attempt to bring reform and regime change to Cuba. Forty-six years later, it is still in place. Fidel won, Cuba lost; the embargo helped the former and punished the latter. The retirement of Fidel is an opportune time to lift the embargo and to permit the "two Cubas" to enjoy full commerce with each other. The wealth and investing power of the Cuban exiles here, to say nothing of other Americans, would do more for Cuban living standards, open communications and free travel than any other policy.

Yet under the Bush administration, a certain bloody-mindedness has taken hold. The embargo has been drawn tighter, with Cuban-Americans only allowed to visit their families in Cuba once every three years. There are restrictions, too, on communications and remittances. Recent attempts to modify the travel restrictions have been met with threats of a presidential veto. Yet the embargo has manifestly failed: Its primary effect has been to punish those who it is allegedly intended to help.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba's economy shrank by more than a third in the subsequent years. Fidel introduced "special," limited reforms, to see Cuba through the worst, just barely; even now, average monthly income in Cuba is about US$20. In 2004, he declared the "special period" over, and why not: Cuba has a new patron now in Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Chavez pumped some US$1.5-billion of petro aid into Cuba in 2007, and is taking the lead on refurbishing Soviet-era factories and refineries, and in providing high-speed internet – all things that could be easily done with Cuban-American investment but for the embargo.

It is galling, to be sure, that the wave of liberty that swept over the world from Poland to the Philippines, from South Korea to South Africa, these past 25 years should meet a sturdy breakwater in Cuba. In the repressive dictators' hall of fame, Fidel has proved a hardier opponent than most. He lasted so long that he wore down the spirit even in Little Havana, where his departure has not been met with a bang, but a whimper. Sometimes, the wicked do prosper. In protesting that, it does no good to continue to afflict the wretched.

Forty-nine years of Fidel has come to a belated end. So too should 46 years of embargo.

Rev. Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario.

Originally published in the National Post, February 28, 2008.

Used with permission.  Copyright © 2008




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