Time to End the Cuban Boycott

Tomorrow, leading Senators will hold a press conference with groups ranging from Human Rights Watch to the Chamber of Commerce to announce a renewed effort to lift or at least ameliorate the worst restrictions of the boycott of Cuba. Catholics should applaud this effort.

When the economic boycott and travel restrictions were first put in place in 1961, the policy recommended itself and enjoyed widespread support. The American Left, in 1961, was still fiercely anti-communist. Then, as the horrors of Vietnam seared and split the nation, the Left grew tepid in its anti-communism, and some even today see Fidel with rose-colored glasses. You can go to any café that can be described as "trendy" and find someone wearing a Che Guevara tee-shirt. Such sentiments could not be more wrong-headed. Fidel was a tryant. Che was a blood-thirsty murderer. And, as we now know, the Rosenbergs really were guilty of espionage.


The reason to lift the economic blockade against Cuba today rests on two undeniable facts. First, it did not work. Second, the Cold War is over. Cuba has been able to get what it needs elsewhere and Fidel has been willing to impoverish his own people. When the Cold War ended, whatever suspicions people had of him as a communist withered and he came to be seen throughout much of Latin America with pride, as someone willing to stand up to the Yanqui. As the Wall came down in Europe, he became more of a folk hero as whatever threat he posed seemed restricted to his own island.

Conservatives believe that we should end the blockade because economic growth and incipient capitalism will lead to an open society, to small "r" republican virtues and small "d" democratic practices. I don’t believe it and offer China as evidence. They have shed all vestiges of communist economics but remain as repressive as ever.

Other conservatives and liberal Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey support the restrictions. But, they have lost their trump card, the Cuban-American vote in Florida. President Obama won the state having pledged to ease restrictions. I was tipped off three years ago to the great unpopularity of these tougher restrictions among Cuban-Americans by an archbishop who travels to the island frequently to assist the local church.

The reason to end the blockade is different and more closely resembles the insight of Pope John Paul II into the nature of communism in Europe. He pointed out that the division of Europe into two camps was, above all, artificial. So, too, is the division of America represented by the blockade. Latin Americans share much more in common, including their suspicions about the U.S., than Fidel or his brother Raul can craft to separate them. Once, in Rome for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, I went to a banquet thrown jointly by the bishops of Cuba and Puerto Rico. One of the clergy present quoted a poem to explain the relationship between the two islands and I can’t quite recall which word he used, and the confusion highlights the point. I believe he said: Las dos alas de la misma paloma. Two wings of the same bird. But, it might have been "las dos almas" or two souls. Either way, introducing an ideological barrier between them is non sustainable and the Church has long recognized this. Indeed, I would submit that the outstanding challenge of the Church in the U.S. today is to enflesh the fact that "America" is a singular noun, not plural, that there is one Church in one America and that while the Rio Grande may be a natural border in nature, it too is an artificial border culturally.

I respect Sen. Menendez and those who have fought against Castro. They were not wrong to fight. But, the U.S. government must recognize that the anti-Castro Cubans who have lived in the States since the early 1960s have more in common with Ahmed Chalabi than should make us comfortable. It is time to try a new strategy towards Cuba. The objective is the same: freedom for the Cuban people. But, the boycott has not worked. As Pope John Paul II taught us, people and the culture they create will always climb over the walls the tyrants erect.


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