New York Times Calls for an End to the Embargo

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Author: Taylor Clark

Over the past few weeks, The New York Times Editorial Board has taken a bold stance on Cuba issues. The newspaper has recently published four op-eds arguing for everything from a complete lifting of the embargo to a prisoner swap for the release of Alan Gross. The Editorial Board criticized the United States’ outdated policy towards Cuba, praised Cuba’s efforts combating Ebola, and suggested releasing the remaining three of the Cuban Five in exchange for the freedom of Alan Gross. Coming from such a widely circulated and respected institution, these assertions hold great power and have the potential to advance changes in relations between the United States and Cuba.

The Time is Right

The first editorial, published in the Times on October 11th, bluntly calls for a complete end to the embargo and an end to the “long era of enmity” between the two nations. Titled simply “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba,” the article gives a brief history of the relationship between Cuba and the United States and why the time is right to fix an historically ineffective policy. In this article, the Times notes changes in both nations that can ease the process of normalization:

“For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo.”

Reforms in Cuba, such as the right to buy or sell homes privately, and an opening to foreign investment, should be recognized by those in the United States who oppose Castro. Changes in the United States, such as younger generations of Cuban Americans supporting relations with Cuba, further open the door for dialogue between the two nations. Cuba has significantly relaxed restrictions for Cuban citizens wishing to travel internationally, and the United States has relaxed restrictions for Cuban Americans to travel back and forth to the island. Although these are baby steps, they are in the right direction and have laid the ground work for greater action to be taken. The article details ways in which Obama can act without the approval of Congress to restore relations: by removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and lifting caps on remittances sent to Cuba. Overall, this comprehensive article presents a strong argument for executive action.

The Necessity of International Cooperation

The second Cuba-related editorial, released only eight days later, praises Cuba’s work fighting Ebola in West Africa. The article, titled “Cuba’s Impressive Role on Ebola,” applauds Cuba’s rapid response sending medical professionals to West Africa. While many nations only sent money or supplies, Cuba was eager to dispatch doctors and medical teams to work directly with patients affected with Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Cuba has a long history of medical diplomacy, training doctors and sending them to remote areas around the world to treat patients. The continuance of this tradition during the Ebola outbreak is invaluable to the West African countries that were affected the most. The New York Times Editorial Board notes:

“It is a shame that Washington, the chief donor in the fight against Ebola, is diplomatically estranged from Havana, the boldest contributor. In this case the schism has life-or-death consequences, because American and Cuban officials are not equipped to coordinate global efforts at a high level. This should serve as an urgent reminder to the Obama administration that the benefits of moving swiftly to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba far outweigh the drawbacks.”

The article continues on to urge the United States to cooperate on this issue with Cuba, and strongly suggests that such cooperation could lead to greater relations. The Editorial Board recalls Cuban willingness to send doctors to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite the lives that could have been saved, the United States dismissed the offer. This article stresses the importance of depoliticizing global healthcare and crisis response, and reciprocating Cuban gestures towards this goal.

A Changing Dynamic

The third article in this unofficial series released by the New York Times Editorial Board examines “The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy,” examining the changing dynamic of U.S. public attitude towards Cuba. This shift is largely due to a younger generation of Cuban Americans who do not hold the same hostility towards the Castro government as previous generations. The loudest voices in the Miami Cuban-American community may still be pro-embargo, but recent polling has shown that the majority of Cuban Americans would like to see a normalization of relations between the two nations.

This shift of public opinion has given politicians an opening to criticize the embargo publically. The article gives the examples of Hillary Clinton and Charlie Crist as some of the most recent public figures to publically come out against the outdated policy. Even some leaders in the business community have come forward to say that they would like the opportunity to do business with Cuba without the embargo.

Concerns of Cuban Americans against normalization of relations have not disappeared, but the anti-Castro sentiment has become less of a political issue and more of an emotional issue for the generations that left Cuba soon after Castro took power. The Times states:

“Politics aside, the issue remains deeply personal for the holdouts, Cuban Americans of that generation say, because it continues to evoke raw feelings about ancestry, homeland and loss. Those sentiments, which have lasted for more than 50 years, cannot be ignored. But they should not continue to anchor American policy on a failed course that has strained Washington’s relationship with allies in the hemisphere, prevented robust trade with the island and offered the Cuban government a justification for its failures.”

A Potential Solution

The most recent editorial concerning Cuba published in the New York Times, titled “A Prisoner Swap with Cuba” suggests a solution for one of the largest impediments to dialogue between Washington and Havana: the imprisonment of Alan Gross in Cuba and the remaining three of the Cuban Five in the United States. 
Members of the Cuban Five were convicted of a litany of charges, including conspiracy to commit espionage, failure to register as foreign agents, and conspiracy to commit murder, in 2001.The Five were working in the United States to monitor anti-Castro groups in Miami that were committing acts of terrorism both in the United States and in Cuba. Two of the Five have served their sentences fully and have returned to Cuba. The case has been very controversial due to a bias against pro-Castro Cubans in Miami, the location of the trial.

Alan Gross, a USAID sub-contractor, was convicted Havana in 2011 for acts against the integrity of the state. Mr. Gross had been traveling to Cuba posed as a tourist while implementing a secret plan to expand internet access on the island. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Since his imprisonment, both the physical and mental health of Alan Gross have declined drastically. As the Times points out, time is of the essence in the case of Alan Gross. Mr. Gross has threatened suicide if he is not released from prison in the next year.

The government of Cuba has indicated that it would be willing to release Mr. Gross contingent on reciprocation from the U.S. Government in terms of the Cuban Five. President Obama has denied this request, asserting that this is could create a “false equivalency”. The prisoner swap of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners in May could have set a precedent for a similar situation between Gross and the Five, but instead, the Obama Administration faced great backlash and accusations of negotiating with terrorists.

The Editorial Board of the Times sums up the potential significance of making such an exchange:

“But a prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba through expanded trade, travel opportunities and greater contact between Americans and Cubans. Failing to act would maintain a 50-year cycle of mistrust and acts of sabotage by both sides.”

These editorials published in the New York Times redirect the public eye to U.S.-Cuba relations at a very important time. In the midst of the series, the United Nations General Assembly voted 188-2 against the embargo, urging the United States to engage in respectful dialogue instead of the current, outdated policy. Additionally, it has recently been announced that Cuba will be attending the Summit of the Americas in April. It is uncertain whether or not President Obama will attend. Finally, as the current Ebola outbreak spreads, international cooperation is vital. As the Times consistently asserts, the time is right for President Obama to take action to repair relations with Cuba.