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Let's Lift the Cuban Trade Embargo


  Who Are We Really Hurting?

 A Time for New Approaches

This month (January 21-25) Pope John Paul II is coming to Cuba, less than 100 miles off the tip of Florida. Given the oppression suffered by the Catholic Church from early on at the hands of the Castro government—confiscation of churches and schools, expulsion of priests and religious, restrictions on religious and political freedoms—the pope's visit can be viewed, among other things, as a gesture of reconciliation.

Such a gesture is not inappropriate for a Church that preaches forgiveness and peacemaking and recommends dialogue with one's opponents. This is why the Vatican has never broken diplomatic relations with the Cuban government since the Communist revolution of 1959. Perhaps the Church's patience is now paying off.

For the same reasons, the Vatican does not consider trade embargoes and policies of isolation as the ideal way for nations to deal with each other.

The time is ripe, therefore, for a nation like ours with millions of Christian citizens to look for a better way to relate to Cuba than by a trade embargo that hurts the Cuban poor more than anyone else.

Who Are We Really Hurting?

The Vatican has been against the American embargo from the beginning. The Cuban Catholic bishops, too, have spoken out consistently against the embargo, as have the U.S. bishops. In the view of Catholic social teaching, any policy that ends up harming the people, especially the poor, is wrong.

A distinction must be made between Cuba's Communist leaders and the Cuban people, who have had little voice in the decisions of an undemocratic and autocratic regime. Ironically, the embargo has not harmed government leaders and those with easy access to dollars. These people continue to live quite comfortably. Rather, it hurts the large majority who are having a hard time finding sufficient food and medicine and a dignified standard of living.

The ostensible U.S. political goal of the embargo, to replace the Castro government with a democratic form of government, has been a failure. Fidel Castro has watched eight U.S. presidents come and go. Meanwhile, by continuing the embargo, the United States keeps delivering to Castro the best propaganda device he could ever wish—a convenient tool to blame any failure of the Cuban Communist experiment on the United States and its trade embargo.

Our government has lifted economic sanctions in the cases of China and Vietnam. Major commerce and tourism are now alive and well between our country and these two Communist states, even though their records on human rights and religious freedom are worse than those of Cuba. Yet Americans are blocked from trade and travel regarding Cuba. Who is really being hurt by the embargo?

Then, too, Canadians and Europeans come to Cuba in large numbers to enjoy its beaches, walk through the intriguing streets of Old Havana or enter business deals. Meanwhile, Cuba's much closer neighbors in the United States are forbidden to do this, despite the great hospitality toward Americans still shown by the Cuban people. Again, who is being punished by the embargo?

A Time for New Approaches

The pope's visit to Cuba signals that a new era has come to that island nation—an era of greater openness toward religion and improved dialogue.

If commerce and travel were allowed to flourish more freely between the United States and Cuba, would not a freer, more democratic exchange of ideas follow close behind?

As Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston wrote in the Boston Pilot, the archdiocesan paper, after a humanitarian trip to Cuba last spring, "Our present policy penalizes the Cuban people and U.S. business. It can be argued that the policy also retards democratic reforms within Cuba and certainly contributes to the impression within Cuba that the U.S. government is the enemy."

The time has come to begin questioning more vigorously an outdated embargo and a policy of isolation and vindictiveness that is neither Christian nor politically effective. This is not to recommend a sudden, unmeasured or naive dismantling of the embargo—as if no concessions need to be required of the other side. It's time for both sides to let go of their stubbornness and shortsightedness and begin discussing what accommodations can be made for the good of the poor and of real people on both sides.

The embargo presently forbids the sale of food, medicines and medical equipment. This is where the embargo seems most inhumane. Visitors coming back from Cuba speak repeatedly about the real need for these items among the poor, especially children, women and elderly people.

There are bills now before the House and Senate that seek to remove from the embargo restrictions against the above-mentioned items. "It should be the policy of the United States," Senate Bill #1391 states, "to permit the sale and export of food, medicines and medical equipment to the Cuban people."

To speak in support of such a bill is a good starting point for correcting a policy that is not working. We should let those who represent us in Congress know that we are behind these bills and that we want to improve our relationship with the Cuban people. —J.W.

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