The best place to find vintage American cars from the 1950s is not anywhere in the United States. It is Havana, Cuba, once a balmy tourist spot and the seat of the authoritarian regime led until last week by Fidel Castro. Boxy, majestic Chevys and Pontiacs haunt the streets here, reinforced with fenders made from scrap metal, painted and repainted past recognition.
The Cubans keep those cars running because they have to. When the revolution of 1959 deposed Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-backed authoritarian dictator, and installed a socialist government with land reform ambitions, the American reaction was swift and uncompromising. The Cuban embargo, at first a stopgap punitive measure, sank into the status quo over the course of decades, banning American trade, then tourism, then remittances, and finally any business exchange with foreign firms that violate Cuban alienation. In a triumph of branding, this last restriction was named the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, on the presumption that the best way to grant people the vote is to deprive them of food.
Over the embargo’s long history, each of its clauses has been bent, tweaked, removed, or renamed. The argument for its maintenance is old, tired, and in fact, far less nuanced than we might think. Any geopolitical excuses we once had for this vengeful act of soft imperialism have disappeared with the downfall of communism; its harsh measures are today propped up only by stubbornness and spite. Any moral argument surely cannot justify the suffering of the Cuban people, which in some respects is no one’s responsibility but our own.
It is difficult to believe just how clear the answer is. Every year since 1992, the General Assembly of the United Nations has voted in favor of ending the embargo by overwhelming margins. The first time, 59 countries stood against the United States and two allies, with 79 abstentions. By 2007, the U.S. was facing down 183 accusers with the support of only Israel and two former territories, the Marshall Islands and Palau. A third such territory failed to determine whether we were indeed oppressing Cuba in “madness and fanaticism” and abstained. Et tu, Micronesia?
Bipolarity is dead. The USSR exists only in history books and spy movies, and the Chinese support free trade more than we do. Even our indestructible North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO) alliances have, on this issue, dissolved: When the US passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, reinstating the ban on foreign trade with Cuba, the European Union wasted no time ordering its citizens not to obey.
We can be thankful that our government is, at long last, coming to its senses—albeit slowly. One of President Clinton’s last acts in office was allowing an exception to the embargo for food and medicine for humanitarian reasons in 2000. Castro’s initial hostility fell away with Hurricane Michelle the next year; By 2007, the U.S. was Cuba’s largest food supplier and its seventh largest trading partner overall. The weakening of tourist and remittance restrictions have revealed just how valuable the dollar is in Havana, where surgeons moonlight as bellhops because the tips they make from American tourists are worth more than their professional salary. Imagine what an actual repeal of the embargo might accomplish.
Bitterness dulled by time, fear tempered by reason, and pride overcome by opportunity, the U.S. is ready to end the nonsense. Agribusiness interests drool over the Cuban market, elections are won and lost on the refugee vote, and human rights activists cringe at the poverty caused by forced, senseless self-sufficiency. Fidel’s resignation is nothing more than the replacement of one Castro by another. But we should not and need not wait for Raul to make the first move. His ascent gives us at the very least an excuse—the best we’ve had since the Cold War ended—and a perfect opportunity to do away with a policy we should have abandoned long ago.
Elise Liu ’11 is a Crimson editorial editor in Canaday Hall.