This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, an opportune time for President-elect Obama to signal an end to the Cuban embargo.
During the campaign, Obama promised to “turn the page and begin to write a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba policy.” Contrary to the Bush administration's policies, Obama said he would give Cuban-Americans “unrestricted rights” to visit family and send cash remittances to the island.
But Obama stopped short of endorsing an end to the embargo. He said he planned to use it as “leverage” over the Cuban government to induce democratic reforms. This strategy has repeatedly failed, leaving U.S.-Cuba relations frozen in a Cold War iceberg since fatigue-clad rebels marched victoriously into Havana on New Year's Day, 1959.
“The embargo is a policy that hasn't worked in nearly 50 years,” Wayne Smith, the former head of Washington's diplomatic mission in Havana under the Carter administration, recently told the AP. “It's stupid, it's counterproductive and there is no international support for it.”
For 17 straight years, the 192-member U.N. General Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a non-binding resolution condemning the U.S. embargo. Only the United States, Israel and Palau voted against the measure in October.
In the United States, the political tide is also turning against the embargo, which would require Congressional approval to lift.
Politicians have traditionally pandered to the Cuban exile community in Florida as a key — even decisive — voting bloc, giving Cuban-American hardliners essentially a veto over changes in U.S. policy. But these old guard, militant exiles, who generally left Cuba shortly after the Castro brothers declared victory, have found their influence waning.
A generational and demographic shift is under way in south Florida that changes the calculus.
A poll conducted by Florida International University a month after the presidential election shows a sea change in Cuban-American opinion. The poll revealed 55 percent of Cuban-American respondents favored ending the embargo, while 65 percent said they wanted Washington to re-establish diplomatic relations with Havana.
Lifting the embargo would dramatically improve Washington's ties with the rest of Latin America.
On December 8, the heads of 15 Caribbean nations called on Obama to rescind the embargo: “The Caribbean community hopes that the transformational change which is under way in the United States will finally relegate that measure to history,” their statement said.
Then on December 17 in Brazil, the leaders of 33 Latin American countries, including conservative allies of Washington like Colombia and Mexico, convened for another gathering and unanimously called on Obama to drop the “unacceptable” embargo.
At that summit, Cuban President Raúl Castro even offered to release political prisoners as a gesture to pave the way for talks between Havana and Washington.
If Obama moves to lift the embargo, it would send a bold statement that his administration is serious about writing a truly new chapter in U.S. relations with Cuba — and the rest of Latin America.
Finally, he will have turned the page.
Teo Ballvé is a freelance journalist based in Colombia and writer for the Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues, where this article was first published; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.