ANALYSIS: Lifting Cuba's embargo, a domestic taboo for the US
By Silvia Ayuso Feb 5, 2012, 2:06 GMT
Washington - 'Imagine you are in the Oval Office and you get a call from Havana. What would you do?' This is a question that former US president John F Kennedy could have faced in the early 1960s.
Half a century and nine US presidents later, Republican presidential hopefuls have faced the same dilemma in recent days.
Indeed, 50 years after the US trade embargo on communist Cuba was made virtually complete, the island just 150 kilometres off the coast of Florida remains almost a political obsession for the United States.
And lifting the longest embargo in history remains taboo, even though most experts agree that the policy failed. After all, a Castro still holds the Cuban leadership, just like when the embargo was implemented.
So, why stick to it?
For US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the staunchest supporters of the embargo and an enemy of any openings towards her native Cuba, it is a 'moral' issue.
'The purpose of the embargo has never been to knock down the regime. It has been a moral statement, a position that this government, the United States, has held against a dictatorship just like we have had it in many other countries around the world,' Ros-Lehtinen told dpa in an interview.
However Geoff Thale, programme director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), believes the issue is shaped by political calculations in the state of Florida - which has the US' largest proportion of citizens with Cuban origin.
In electoral terms therefore, very few dare openly challenge the Cuban issue in Florida, given its weight in votes.
'The political advantage of changing (the embargo) is relatively limited. The political cost is very high, unfortunately,' Thale said.
According to opinion polls, like one last year by Florida International University, the percentage of young people of Cuban descent who are against the embargo is growing.
The embargo continues to have broad support however, and Thale admitted that generational change had not yet been sufficient to reach a turning point.
This explains the cautiousness of the administration of US President Barack Obama regarding Cuba. In three years in office, Obama has been very shy regarding the island, easing travel and remittances only for Cuban-Americans. For other US citizens, there have barely been changes to restrictions.
Still, even those timid steps reaped international applause, particularly from Latin America. According to Thale, the embargo is 'a stain on America's reputation abroad.'
'The US embargo on Cuba is this long-standing symbol of an unpleasant history of US attempts to dominate Latin America ... and it does complicate US diplomacy in the region, because it reminds people of the tradition of the ugly American,' he said.
Each year, when the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the embargo - as it has done for 20 years - growing US isolation shows the extent to which the policy is unpopular far beyond the Americas.
Critics of the embargo point to the lack of change in Cuba as the symbol of the sanctions' failure, and they argue that opening up to the island would be much more likely to bring about reform. But supporters of the embargo, like Ros-Lehtinen, are unconvinced.
'What have 50 years of being economically involved with the regime done? Every country in the world has been doing trade, tourism, all sorts of economic transactions with the regime for 50 years and the regime still exists. So neither the embargo will knock it down, nor will being economically involved with the dictatorship knock it down either,' she said.
Florida's recent Republican primary showed that Cuba remains a hot topic in US politics. In such a scenario, Thale thinks drastic change is unlikely for a long time.
'A second Obama administration might make some move on the travel ban, on oil exploration-related investment and trade,' he said.
'But ending the embargo is not in the near term.'
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