US Activists Challenge Obama on Cuba


During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he was willing to sit down with Cuban leaders without preconditions. Hopes were high for the change that Obama had promised during his campaign for the White House. Obama, however, has been slow to implement any significant policy shift towards Cuba since taking office, raising concerns among those eager to see a new relationship with the island nation. This week two groups of Americans, over 250 people in all, are traveling to Cuba to challenge the travel restrictions and protest the slow pace of change. 

Diego Iniguez-Lopez is a Cuban American who voted for Obama. "I expected him to rescind the excesses of the Bush policies immediately. I applaud the small steps we have seen but he hasn’t gone far enough to address the embargo and how it affects the Cuban people and our ability to travel there." Iniguez-Lopez will travel with the Venceremos ("We Shall Overcome") Brigade which, along with Pastors for Peace, will spend two weeks in Cuba without permission from the U.S. government. Iniguez-Lopez, who has made the trip before with permission, decided this year to defy the law. "Obama spoke of a new beginning with mutual respect as the foundation. We are not there yet with Cuba," he said. 

Both groups traveling to Cuba assert that a full removal of the blockade on Cuba is essential.  "The blockade of Cuba is one of the most nonsensical aspects of U.S. foreign policy," said Reverend Lucius Walker founder of the Harlem-based Pastors for Peace.  "Now that we have a sensible president we have reason to believe that the policies will change — but we are not waiting for that. We, like all good Americans, are moving ahead with our people-to-people foreign policy between U.S. and Cuba."  

Both groups return on August 3rd and cross the U.S. border from Canada and Mexico in an act of civil obedience. Pressure is also being applied by the New York City based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) that filed a lawsuit in July in a Brooklyn federal district court challenging the U.S. government’s Cuba travel ban.   

This is not to say there has been no movement. The Summit of the Americas meeting held in Trinidad and Tobago in April provided a stage for Obama to announce a slight shift in policy, lifting Bush-era restrictions that prevented Cuban Americans from sending money to relatives and limited their travel to once every three years. It seems that Obama is moving back to the type of relationship that existed under Bill Clinton. In the past two months the Obama administration has issued a call to resume immigration talks cut off by George. W. Bush in 2004. 

But even those limited steps at the Summit of the America meeting were met with howls of protest from some quarters. Cuban American members of Congress in Florida were not happy. "Regrettably, this constitutes another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship," said Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart in a joint statement issued after the Summit. 

It is not just conservatives who are dissatisfied.  "This isn’t enough", said Tshaka Barrows, a juvenile justice organizer from Oakland, California who is traveling with the Veneceremos Brigade. "I ask myself; under racial segregation would it have been acceptable policy for a few blacks to share drinking fountains and restaurant tables under the prerequisite of white friends who could grant them this opportunity?" 

"The current policy is still about 80% Bush," said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst from the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute. "Obama didn’t promise a profound policy shift towards Cuba during his election, though he did speak about travel and family relations. Change, however, was the central theme of his campaign." Indeed, Obama said at the April summit, "The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba."  

Peters argued more than a new beginning is needed. "The nuclear option would be to end the embargo now. The political equation would change overnight. The Cuban government would be forced to accept responsibility for problems they face." 

A large part of the problem is an inability by the U.S. to acknowledge Cuban sovereignty, and that Cuba is not the backyard of its northern neighbor.  "An understanding of the history between the two nations is essential to understand why the conflict still exists," said Bob Guild of Marazul Charters who has helped organize travel to the island for over 30 years.  

The U.S. swooped into Cuba’s war of Independence with Spain in the last moment, thwarting Cuban peoples’ role in ending colonial rule. Even the name of the war was usurped, and it is now better known as the Spanish American War than as Cuba’s War of Independence. The U.S. had recently annexed Hawaii. Leaders of the Cuban independence movement were weary of involvement from its expansionist northern neighbor, particularly given that the war was in its third year and the Spanish were on the run. That is just when the USS Maine was blown up just off Havana harbor, giving the U.S. the green light to jump into the conflict. The U.S. quickly defeated Spain and Cuban participation in the handover from Spain was minimal.  

Cuban independence was severely circumscribed from the start. Cubans who led the independence movement were banned from ceremonies marking Spain’s departure. The Platt amendment, which gave the U.S. government the right to intervene in Cuba’s domestic and foreign affairs, was imposed on the island in exchange for the departure of the U.S. military. The following year a large piece of land was leased to the U.S. in Guantanamo. Then, of course, there is the punitive embargo, or blockade as its fiercest critics refer to it, imposed in 1962 by President Kennedy when the new Castro Government nationalized U.S. companies and strengthened ties to the Soviet Union. That was in the darkest days of the cold war, yet now, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the policy remains intact. 

Critics of the policy argue it has been inhumane, ineffective and counterproductive for the eleven presidents who have upheld it. They say it is it has served as rallying cry for the government to blame its own ills on. It is inhumane because the Cuban people are being punished for the alleged ills of their government; they suffer from critical shortages of essential goods from the U.S. and international isolationism imposed by the policy.   

In 1996 the embargo was strengthened by the Helms-Burton Act which extended its remit to foreign business.  Penalties can be imposed on other countries that trade with Cuban industries linked to expropriations of former U.S. companies.  "These cold war policies remain in place due to the great influence of the Cuban-exile community in South Florida." said Bob Guild. 

As of yet, other than minor shifts in policy, the Obama administration has held to the outdated policy towards Cuba that limits changes until Cuba adheres to democratic elections, releases political prisoners and grants freedom of press. While all that may sound reasonable, the reality is a little more complex.  

As the U.S. call for the release of five Cubans held for their political beliefs, Cuba, in turn, seeks the release of five Cubans convicted and given long prison sentences for espionage in Florida.  That case has been denounced by Amnesty International for improper prosecutorial conduct, excessive delays and insufficient evidence, and it was recently denied an appeal by the Supreme Court.  

Then there is the issue of terrorism. The most famous incident was the bombing of a Cubana airliner on October 6, 1976 that killed 73 people. When the Carter administration briefly lifted the restrictions on travel in 1979, Carlos Muniz, president of a Florida agency chartering flights to Cuba was shot and killed.  During the Clinton administration, when cultural exchanges increased, several Miami nightclubs were bombed or threatened with bombings when Cuban acts that had not denounced the Castro government were scheduled to perform. Finally in the late 1990s a string of bombings targeted recently opened hotels in Havana catering to European and Canadian tourists, resulting in the death of an Italian tourist.  

Neither side’s hands can be called totally clean, but that has never stopped the U.S. from diplomatic engagement in the past.  "Why do we continue to use hypocritical leveraging?" said Bonnie Massey, a high school social worker traveling to Cuba with her eight month-old son. "The U.S. has strong ties with China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and a long list of other nations that have never been demanded the same pre-requisites for normalized relations." Isn’t it about time for the Obama administration to take a clear eyed, objective view of U.S. Cuba relations and end the embargo and normalize relations?   

JoJo Farrell is the Latin America Fellow for the human rights organization Global Exchange. He has organized people-to-people exchanges around Latin America and is currently teaching in the New York City public school system.