An End in Sight?

It was a news story I’ve never forgotten: a Japanese soldier discovered on an island in the Philippines who still thought Japan was at war 29 years after World War II had ended. He and other soldiers on the island had seen leaflets that the war was over but thought the news was enemy propaganda. Over the years his fellow soldiers died or deserted and only he was left to wage a war that everyone but him knew was lost.

His story comes to mind when I hear American politicians insist that the 50-year embargo on trade with Cuba should continue.

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Most Americans probably view the economic embargo as chiefly a symbolic gesture by the Unites States. But the embargo continues to have a real effect on Cubans’ lives. President Raúl Castro called the embargo “cruel, immoral and illegal” in his speech welcoming Pope Francis to Cuba last month. Days later, in a speech to the United Nations, he described the embargo as “the main obstacle” to Cuba’s economic development. One estimate by the Cuban government, reported in 2009 in the magazine Dollars & Sense, puts the costs of the embargo to Cuba at $685 million annually. The costs to the United States are actually greater. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that the embargo costs the United States $1.2 billion each year. Others have put the estimate as high as $4 billion.

After more than 50 years, the longest-running trade embargo in modern history has manifestly failed to achieve its intended purpose of dislodging the Communist government in Cuba. Its main effect has been to create hardship for the Cuban people and, some say, to perpetuate the regime it aimed to overthrow. It is easy for Havana to blame all its economic problems on its neighbor, the oppressive colossus to the north bent on destroying it, when that neighbor really is bent on destroying it.

Whatever credibility the embargo initially had when President Kennedy imposed it has long since expired. Since 1992 overwhelming majorities in the U.N. General Assembly have condemned the embargo and called for it to be lifted. Last year only the United States and Israel voted against the nonbinding resolution, Israel more as payback for the many times the United States has used its veto power to shield it from U.N. censure than out of genuine enthusiasm, one suspects.

In Cuba, Pope Francis spoke of the need to lift the embargo and to further reconciliation between Cuba the United States. President Obama has eased those aspects of the embargo he can, but it takes an act of Congress to lift it. Some in Congress would like to, but the Cuban-American lobby exerts powerful influence there. With the exception of Rand Paul and John Kasich, most of the Republican presidential candidates oppose lifting the embargo.

In August, a Gallup poll reported that 72 percent of the American public support ending the trade embargo of Cuba. But trying to persuade Americans to lobby Congress on the issue is tough. They’ve become inured to the injustice it represents to Cubans and other people around the world.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to persuade a person or party to give up a fight. It was leaders from Latin America, including the pope, who put pressure on the United States to end its long diplomatic isolation of Cuba. The Vatican brokered the secret 18-month talks between the two countries that resulted in the full resumption of diplomatic ties in July. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, long-time allies of the United States like Mexico and Colombia joined with more leftist governments to insist that Cuba be invited to the next summit in three years’ time. If not, many nations made clear they would not attend either.

While his two predecessors also called for an end to the embargo of Cuba, the issue seems particularly important to Pope Francis. Austen Ivereigh, author of a recent biography of Francis, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, commented, “What the Berlin Wall was to John Paul II, the sea between Miami and Cuba is to this pope.”

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, can the United States finally abandon the last outpost of battle and remove sanctions both vindictive and pointless? U.S. policy towards Cuba has exemplified the worst aspects of our politics and even of our character. Normalizing trade would free both countries to turn the page on a painful history.

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