New York             Dr. Cesar Chelala

The renewed political landscape in Washington and Havana offers a long overdue opportunity to reverse a U.S. decision that has been maintained for more than half a century. It has also caused considerable and unnecessary suffering to the Cuban people: the embargo against Cuba.

Remarkably, the embargo has benefited no one except its presumable target: the Castro brothers. It has allowed them to maintain a strong grip on power, to use it as a rallying point against the United States, and as a scapegoat for the deprivations Cubans have endured since the embargo was imposed in 1962.

The efforts of those supporting the embargo — mostly the Cuban exile community in Florida — have proven to be counterproductive. They have neither weakened the Castros’ power nor turned the population against them. In addition, the changing demographics in Florida have made the younger generation there less obsessed with the Cuban regime, and eager to see better relations between the two countries.

As a result of the embargo, there have been severe restrictions in the export of medicines from the United States to Cuba. In the past, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the autonomous branch of the Organization of American States) informed the U.S. government that such activities were a violation of international law, and requested that the United States take immediate action to exempt medicines from the embargo.

According to the Cuban delegation to the United Nations, restrictions on medical products are “so extensive that they make such imports practically impossible.” Presently, American medicines are allowed in Cuba under a humanitarian exemption.

On one of several UN-sponsored health-related missions to Cuba, I was able to see the punishing impact of the embargo on people’s access to vital medicines.

In spite of these difficulties, Cuba has one of the best public health care systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a U.S. non-governmental organization that evaluated Cuba’s health care system in 2000-2001, described the island as “a shining example of the power of public health to transform the health of an entire country by a commitment to prevention and by careful management of its medical resources.” 

In its last report on children’s health, State of the World’s Children 2012, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated that Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean without child malnutrition. Ordinary Cubans enjoy good health care and education — but none of the advantages of living in an open society.

The embargo has been roundly condemned worldwide through several United Nations General Assembly annual votes. The embargo was overwhelmingly condemned in the last November 13, 2012 UN vote for the 21st year in a row by a final tally of 188-3. Only Israel and Palau joined the United States in rejecting that measure.

Now is the perfect time to implement a diplomatic approach that could lead to lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations between both countries. The process should consist of several steps to allow the development of trust, trade, and lead to the free movement of people between the United States and Cuba.

All the Cubans I spoke with on the island are eager for normal relations with the United States. They feel emotionally closer to the Americans than they were to the Russians at the time they were receiving their help.

The embargo is hurting not only Cubans but also limiting the commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuba. Total agricultural exports from the U.S. to Cuba since 2001 had reached $3.5 billion as of February 2012. This amount could be substantially higher should there be normal relations between both countries.

Lifting the embargo on Cuba is a much less complex endeavor than ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putting an end to the embargo would improve Cubans’ health and create an atmosphere of goodwill worldwide — of unpredictable, but certainly good consequences for world peace.

 Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).


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