What is the United States' role?
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Today’s read: 13 minutes.
We’re covering the protests in Cuba. This requires a little history, so we’re skipping the reader question today to make room for the main story.
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- A judge in Indiana upheld Indiana University’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, the first ruling of its kind in the United States. (The New York Times)
- Fox News host Sean Hannity made an impassioned plea to his viewers to take coronavirus seriously and get the vaccine. (The Hill)
- Starting August 9, fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents can enter Canada for nonessential travel without quarantining. (CNN)
- A bipartisan group of senators is pushing to expand Congress’s ability to roll back presidential national-security decisions. (Politico)
- House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy has chosen five Republican lawmakers — including Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks — to sit on the committee investigating the January 6 attacks at the U.S. Capitol. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
What D.C. is talking about.
Cuba. Last week, the largest protests seen in decades broke out across the Caribbean island. Thousands of protesters across the island participated over the course of two days.
A (very) brief history: In the 1950s, after years of political warfare inside the island, Cuba was led by the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who came to power through a military coup and was recognized by the U.S. as president. After years of corruption, Batista was then ousted in 1959 by Fidel Castro, who also received tepid support from the U.S. by way of an arms embargo against Batista’s government. After Castro took power, he executed many of Batista’s allies and ushered in the Communist party, fraying Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. By the early 1960s, Dwight Eisenhower had imposed a ban on trade with Cuba and approved a CIA plan to overthrow the Castro government (this is known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion). The overthrow failed, and Castros have been in power until earlier this summer.
During the Cold War, Cuba became allied with the Soviet Union, had an outsized impact in the Middle East and began growing into a full-fledged Communist system. Since then, tensions with America have been high — with trade embargoes and spates of conflict on the island and surrounding areas. President Barack Obama thawed relations with Cuba by relaxing import and export restrictions shortly after the Cuban government began making it easier for citizens to leave and return to the country freely. President Trump reinstated many of the sanctions and embargoes eased under Obama.
Last week: Protests broke out across the country after years of economic hardships that have only worsened during the pandemic. The country is facing a shortage of food and a dysfunctional health care system, and has very few vaccinations after the government decided not to participate in the COVAX sharing program and developed its own shots. Power outages are common on the island. Tourism, which briefly blossomed during Obama’s term, has all but disappeared because of the pandemic. The state-run economy, under U.S. embargo since 1962, has been badly mismanaged. Last year, its GDP fell 11 percent.
In April, Fidel Castro’s younger brother Raúl stepped down as head of the island’s Communist party. President Miguel Díaz-Canel took over, and has blamed the hardships on the U.S. embargo, which he calls “non-conventional warfare.” Cuba’s government claims the embargo cost them $5.5 billion last year, though that number is contested. It has also claimed social media campaigns are helping worsen protests with artificial protesters.
In response to the protests, the government shut down the state-run internet in Cuba, arrested hundreds of protesters, and called on government supporters to take to the streets and stand up for them. At least one death has been reported.
“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” President Joe Biden said. However, he warned that Cubans attempting to come to the U.S. would be turned away.
Some 3.5 percent of all Latinos in the U.S. are of Cuban ancestry or are Cuban immigrants. Many live in Florida after fleeing the regime, which has made them a powerful voting bloc in an important swing state.
Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.
There is quite a bit of common ground on this issue in America. Many Republicans and Democrats support the protesters in Cuba, and oppose the way the Cuban government runs the country. There is variance in the blame put on the U.S. and the preference for how we should respond, but there are only smatterings of support for the Cuban government.
What the right is saying.
The right supports the protesters, arguing that it’s time for a change of Cuban leadership and that we must continue to apply pressure.
In The Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady emphasized the incredible risks protesters took — and the repercussions they are suffering.
“With Big Brother everywhere, Cubans are taught to tremble before authority and to keep nonconforming thoughts to themselves,” she said. “Yet in a flash on that day, large numbers of ordinary Cubans made the decision to raise their voices against their oppressors. The outcry spread as if a fuse had been lit. The fear factor failed. The regime was caught off guard. It shouldn’t have been.
“The island was simmering with discontent before 2020, but Covid-19 has put regular privation on steroids and exposed the injustice of a system in which the Communist Party enjoys lavish privileges and everyone else grovels for crumbs,” O’Grady wrote. “Dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel loaded up buses with trained military hit men and sent them, dressed in civilian clothing and carrying metal bars and sticks, to attack the demonstrators… In the aftermath of the marches there were home-to-home searches for enemies of the revolution. Democracy advocates on the island say some 5,000 people have been arrested and the whereabouts of nearly 200 are unknown. Arrests include important dissident leaders like José Daniel Ferrer and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and the journalist Henry Constantin.”
Rich Lowry criticized the left for its “long held affection” for the Cuban regime.
“Cuba’s regime has long benefited from the romantic image of violent Latin American revolutionaries (Che Guevara is a popular progressive mascot), the fact that it is a left-wing, rather than right-wing dictatorship, and that it has always fed off Anti-American sentiments,” he wrote. “The rationalizations offered for the regime are tinny and misleading. We are supposed to believe that Cuba was sunk in medieval illiteracy until enlightened Communists came to power who cared above all about social progress and just happened to jail, torture, and kill lots of people in the course of teaching kids to read.
“The government’s failures are always blamed on the US embargo,” he added. “If it weren’t for the US strictures, on this view, Cuba would be the one Marxist economy in the world able to deliver plenty to its people. Actually, shortages are endemic because of the inefficiencies inherent to command-and-control economies. The US embargo is unilateral, and the Cuban government has long been expert at evading it. There is nothing keeping Cuba from trading with other advanced Western countries and buying their goods, if the artificially impoverished country could afford them (its characteristic way of doing business is to buy on credit and then never pay up).”
In Newsweek, Cathy Young criticized Black Lives Matter for blaming Cuba’s economic troubles on the United States embargo.
“Preposterously, the statement also accuses the U.S. of ‘undermining Cubans' right to choose their own government.’ The ‘choice,’ in this case, is a one-party system in which all candidates for political office must be vetted by Communist Party-controlled committees,” Young said. “One can debate the merits of the U.S. embargo, partly eased under President Obama and tightened again by the Trump administration. But blaming Cuba's economic woes on the U.S. is ludicrous. The embargo's effects were always limited by the fact that no other countries joined in. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union poured massive subsidies into Cuba for decades until it collapsed.
“One way the Trump sanctions have caused pain is by restricting remittances Cuban Americans can send to family in Cuba,” she added. “But if loss of private aid from American relatives is so devastating, it does not say much for the Cuban economy's ability to ensure a decent life. Even the widely praised achievements in healthcare in Cuba are heavily mythologized. The low infant mortality rate, for instance, may be an artifact of political repression in several ways: Doctors are pressured to record infant deaths as stillbirths to improve the statistics, while women with high-risk pregnancies are either pressured into abortions or forcibly hospitalized.”
What the left is saying.
The left supports the protesters but also blames American policy for the living conditions in Cuba.
The Washington Post editorial board said the regime showed its true colors.
“The initial spark was a Facebook live video from San Antonio de los Baños, south of Havana, showing protesters in the street, fed up with electricity blackouts, food shortages, rampant coronavirus infections and a police state run by the Communist Party of Cuba,” the board said. “The video was up for about 50 minutes and caught on quickly, inspiring protests across the island, but then was cut off. By Monday, according to Internet monitors, Cuban authorities had largely shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram — although not Twitter. Mobile screens largely went dark this week, making it extremely difficult for activists and independent journalists to communicate.
“Next, the regime turned to force and coercion,” the board wrote. “The government confirmed one person died Monday during a clash between protesters and police. But unverified reports circulating in Cuba suggests the use of force to crush the protests was widespread. Videos circulating on social media showed people being roughed up by security forces. Witnesses have reported many detained or missing; activists have circulated a list of more than 100. The independent online news portal 14ymedio says that, based on fragmentary reports, there are more than 5,000 people imprisoned or being investigated for participating in the protests, among them more than 120 activists and independent journalists… The goal of such sweeping repression and arrests is to instill fear, to intimidate and silence those who would speak their minds.”
The Guardian’s editorial board criticized both the U.S. embargoes and the Cuban government.
“The government’s long-term failings, including foot-dragging on reform, have been matched by the impact of the American embargo,” the editors wrote. “Hopes aroused by Barack Obama’s restoration of relations and loosened restrictions were cruelly dashed when Donald Trump reclassified the country as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed new sanctions barring travel to the country from the US and, crucially, remittances: a key source of income. Washington’s claim that Havana is failing to meet people’s most basic needs is undeniable. But the US has ensured this is the case. Mr Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly told diplomats that the aim of the tightened sanctions was to ‘starve’ the island to bring down the regime.
“The pandemic was a fresh blow to a country on its knees, killing off the tourism upon which Cuba is heavily reliant,” it added. “The economy contracted by 11% last year and is thought to be doing worse this year. A necessary but too-long-delayed currency revaluation was finally carried out in the midst of the crisis, compounding the problems. Prices soared. Daily life means hours of power cuts and queues for scant food and scarcer medicines. While the country’s initial response to Covid was impressive – it has even produced its own vaccines – things are deteriorating swiftly. Last year, Cuba saw relatively few cases; it is currently notching up approximately 7,000 a day. The hospitals of its famed health service are overwhelmed. And the country’s leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, lacks both charisma and the aura of the Castro brothers he followed. Many Cubans have had enough.”
In Jacobin, Branko Marcetic said the U.S. “blockade” on Cuba must end.
“Regime-change advocates like [Senator Marco] Rubio have pushed back against this,” Marcetic said. “For them, the embargo is irrelevant to what’s now happening in the country, which they claim instead is a product of ‘six decades of suffering under totalitarian socialism and communism.’ Predictably, their preferred response to the current protests doesn’t involve ending the policy.
“But the reality is that the US ‘embargo’ — or blockade, more accurately — was designed to exacerbate scarcity and encourage social unrest in Cuba,” he wrote. “For decades, the blockade has strangled the country’s economy and deprived Cubans of access to essentials like medical supplies, its success at creating misery only intensifying with the fall of the Soviet Union, the coronavirus pandemic, and four years of ‘maximum pressure’ under President Trump… A blockade — distinct from an embargo, by including imports and trying to coerce third-party countries — is a method of war that, under international law, is meant to only take place during armed conflict. It’s not for nothing that legal scholars have argued that the blockade of Cuba is a serious violation of international law, not least for the fact that it’s aimed explicitly at forcing a change in government.”
A view from Cuba.
Yoani Sánchez is a journalist and activist for freedom of speech in Cuba. She is the founder of 14ymedio, an independent digital news outlet that has been restricted by the Cuban government for its criticisms. Sánchez is one of the most-read Cuban writers in the world.
Yesterday, she wrote a guest essay in The New York Times.
“To be sure, the restrictions brought on by the pandemic have exhausted an already worn-down population,” she said. “But young Cubans are not protesting solely against the pandemic curfews, the cut in commercial flights that allowed them to escape to another country, or the shops that accept only foreign currencies even though the people are paid in Cuban pesos. These protests are fueled by the desire for freedom, the hope of living in a country with opportunities, the fear of becoming the weak and silent shadows that their grandparents have become.
“These young Cubans don’t want to be the grandchildren of a revolution that has aged so badly that Cubans are forced to risk their lives crossing the Florida Straits for a chance at a decent life,” she wrote. “They have grown up watching the bellies of Communist officials grow while they have difficulty putting food on the table. They no longer fear risking their lives in the streets, because they are slowly losing their lives anyway, waiting in long lines to buy food, traveling on crowded buses and enduring prolonged power outages… Cubans have tasted freedom, and there’s no turning back. We will not be silenced again.”
In this case, the main tension between the right and left seems to be focused on the impact of the U.S. embargo — but that’s not what I’d put at the top of my blame pyramid.
First and foremost is the Cuban government. Protesters didn’t hit the streets in Cuba this week because of a 60-year-old embargo. They hit the streets because the government no longer offers them any of the benefits that were once worth sacrificing personal freedoms for, and because it completely bungled its coronavirus response (it is overseeing a once-heralded healthcare system that’s now coming undone). In the 1980s, when Cuba was twenty years into the U.S. embargo, many of its citizens had a decent quality of life and there was much less economic inequality. It never recovered from the Soviet Union crashing in the 1990s, and the state-controlled economy has severely limited entrepreneurial opportunity and social mobility ever since.
The conditions in Cuba for people of color in particular makes the BLM organization’s statement parroting the regime’s talking points an outright embarrassment. Alianza Afro-Cubana, an advocacy group for Black LGBTQ Cubans, told Black Lives Matter to “sit down and have a conversation about solidarity.” Cuban dissident Jorge Felipe Gonzalez sent a similar message to the organization: “Cuba is not an empty canvas onto which Americans can project their political ideas and not a utopian vehicle to advance some fantasy of socialist equality.”
And they’re right. Gonzalez aptly summarized the racism of the Communist regime and the poor living conditions, lack of wealth, low educational attainment and high incarceration rates for Black Cubans. Black Cubans are the most neglected group of all, a reality that makes BLM’s statement of support for the Cuban government (which is not only neglecting Black Cubans but often hostile to them) that much more absurd and out-of-touch. The protests were cynically seized as an opportunity to criticize the U.S. government — yet contained no notes of solidarity for the Black Cubans leading protests in the streets and facing down a police state that can make ours look like mall security.
But conservatives can’t have it both ways, either. They are at once insisting that the embargo in Cuba has a minimal impact but also insisting that it cannot be lifted under any circumstances. If it’s so insignificant, why is it off-limits to be ended? The obvious answer is that it is significant, and that it’s serving its purpose: It’s one piece of a collage of policies that harm the Cuban government, then the Cuban people, and usher in the kinds of uprisings happening now. Which, from many right-wing U.S. political perspectives, is good: the potential end of a repressive regime in the Western world that silences dissent and loathes democracy is a positive to them.
But it has a cost. Cuban people are suffering unthinkable living conditions and are finally risking their lives to rally support for change. The embargo shouldn’t be overstated: Cuba conducts trade with 70 countries around the world and, as Andres Oppenheimer wrote, the embargo has “more holes in it than swiss cheese.” Cuba is one of our 15 largest trading partners and we are its biggest exporter of food and agriculture (some $276 million a year). 500,000 U.S. tourists went to Cuba in 2019, even during Trump’s sanctions; between $2.9 billion and $3.5 billion in remittances go to the island every year.
And yet, the embargo should also be lifted. A more comprehensive and forward-thinking U.S. policy would both recognize the harm the embargo does to the Cuban People, and the need to support press freedom, political dissent and political assembly all at once. The U.N. gets a lot of stuff wrong, but it has rightly called on the U.S. to lift the embargo since 1992 — and this year that call came with renewed urgency. Some estimates put the cost at $147 billion over six decades, and access to medical supplies and equipment to fight the pandemic in the past year have been severely limited.
For now, we should all take heart in one obvious point: the protesters in Cuba have thrust themselves into the global conversation in the face of a frightening and brutal government that will punish as many of them as it can. It’s up to us to hear the call and change our policies, all while expressing support for the citizens who deserve it most.
What do you think? I’d love to hear from you, especially the Cuban and Cuban-American Tangle readers I know are out there.
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A story that matters.
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- 11.3 million. The population of Cuba.
- 6,505. The number of new daily Covid-19 cases in Cuba.
- 27%. The percentage of Cubans who have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
- 66%. In a poll of 400 Cuban-Americans in Florida, the percentage who said they opposed a return to Obama-era normalization of relations with Cuba.
- 45%. The percentage of Americans who had a “very” or “mostly” favorable view of Cuba in February of 2021.
- 54%. The percentage of Americans who had a “very” or “mostly” unfavorable view of Cuba in February of 2021.
- 40%. The percentage of global respondents who told Gallup they had experienced a lot of stress during the prior day, the highest recorded in recent years.
Have a nice day.
South Carolina State University used stimulus money from both the Trump and Biden administrations to wipe out $9.8 million in student debt, clearing the balances of more than 2,500 students who were unable to afford returning to college. “Our university was founded on the tenet of providing students with access to a quality affordable education," Acting President Alexander Conyers said in a statement. “That's exactly what we intend to do. No student should have to sit home because they can't afford to pay their past due debt after having experienced the financial devastation caused by a global pandemic.” (Business Insider)