February 10, 2015

Cuba panel talks embargo and immigration at the IOP

The Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted a panel discussion Monday that featured immigration narratives, the implications of a trade embargo, and a plentiful supply of empanadas. The event, titled “The Thaw: What’s Next for U.S.-Cuba Relations,” was co-presented by the Center for Latin American Studies and focused on the implications of recent changes to U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.

Last December, the White House announced a series of significant reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy, including a planned re-establishment of bilateral relations, the lifting of some U.S. travel restrictions, and fewer restrictions on remittances. However, the 54-year old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba remains in effect; whether or not the U.S. should lift the embargo was the main point of contention in the discussion.

The two panelists were María De Los Angeles Torres, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Ana Carbonell, managing partner of The Factor, Inc., a Miami-based political consulting firm. Torres argued that the embargo should be lifted on the basis of both its historical failure and the frailty of the Cuban economy.

“It is clear that the embargo hasn’t worked—the [Castro] regime is still there. The Cuban economy is also very precarious; the cash cows that supply it with discounted imports, like Russia and Venezuela, are having their own problems. All of this is sowing a potential disaster for the Cuban people,” Torres said.

Torres added her belief that lifting the embargo would directly benefit Cuban citizens. “People who are hungry are not thinking about regime change. What lifting the embargo would do is improve economic conditions; this would create more room so that opinion that is divided [against the Cuban government] is better able to maneuver,” she said.

Carbonell countered with the suggestion that lifting the embargo would run opposite to American principles.

“In the ‘90s, congressional discussion of the embargo shifted to emphasize the objective of returning self-determination to the Cuban people. This meant that we would not lift the embargo until all political prisoners were freed, Cubans were guaranteed the right to free association, and they held elections that were internationally supervised. This has not yet happened,” Carbonell said.

She also said that lifting trade restrictions unconditionally would jeopardize the future of the Cuban people.

“If we were to lift the embargo overnight, the regime would still dictate who can do business with them. Totalitarianism would combine with American capitalism, and everyone would be motivated to use Cubans as slave labor; it would look like China or Vietnam. Therefore, we cannot let Cuba transition into another dictatorship; it has to be a multi-party democracy,” Carbonell said.

Torres responded with the suggestions that regime change cannot be forced from outside Cuba, and that the Cuban political economy already resembles that of China or Vietnam.

“There is a contradiction inherent in supporting Cuban citizens by imposing an embargo that requires that their government becomes a democracy. The majority of Cuban citizens support lifting the embargo. Also, Cuba is already a display of ‘Market-Leninism.’ Every travel agent in Miami responds to a general in Cuba,” Torres said.

In her concluding remarks, Torres added that her lived experience as a first-generation Cuban American has shaped her opinion of both the embargo and the recent shifts in foreign policy.

“I was raised in Texas, and the memories of having a cross burned on our lawn and being called ‘f–ing spics’ certainly radicalized me. For Cuban Americans, the image of the Cuban Revolution certainly loomed over the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Now, I’m able to understand why my parents left Cuba. The [foreign policy changes] put the ball in their court. It’s not us. It’s not Miami. It’s them.”