In the course of this year I have visited Cuba in two occasions. I have always felt certain attraction to the island, perhaps this was compounded by the fact that my grandmother was Cuban, from Caibarien. To be frank the initial feeling, upon spending the first few days, was one of utter disgust: at the civilized world’s conscious decision to ignore the plight for freedom of 11 million Cubans, who not only have had to endure a brutal dictatorship for half a century, but on top of it, the world’s ignominy. At times I wondered why, and couldn’t please my discomfort. What have Cubans done to deserve such ostracism? It’s as if they don’t exist, as if their voices don’t count, as if they belong for some cruel and deranged reason to a sub human category, whose rights can be disregarded and violated with total impunity. Human rights advocates the world over can't help themselves from attacking, and rightly so, the US for violating due process and rights of Guantanamo Bay's detainees. However not one word of criticism about what goes on in Castro's many jails is uttered. The estimated 100,000 Cuban prisoners, political and otherwise, can only dream about, for instance, the quality of the drinking water given to those held Guantanamo. Representatives of the Red Cross, for one, can not set foot in Cuban prisons.
The embargo has provided Castro with the perfect excuse to maintain his repressive dictatorship and gain much international sympathy, at times when anti-Americanism is gaining traction globally. The fact that 135 countries voted in favor of electing Cuba to the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2006 just goes to show how successfully Castro’s 'foreign policy' of tapping into the very deep pool of anti-US resentment has been.
The all-purpose blame-America formula has shielded the communist tyrant from criticism. Add constant propaganda with an effective information blackout --that works both ways-- and the end result is, internally, a population that is largely ignorant about their inalienable rights; externally, an international community unaware of what is taking place and reluctant to listen to perfectly legitimate criticism vis-a-vis the world's favorite dictator. It's a tragedy of monumental proportions, a humanitarian crisis, yet everyone acts as if nothing is happening in Cuba.
The US-imposed embargo should be lifted for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that its presumed intended purpose, that of isolating Castro and diminishing his capacity to maneuver internationally, has been an utter and complete fiasco. Contrary to what the gringos initially thought, the measure boosted Castro tremendously and provided him with the perfect guise with which to present himself as the underdog: the valiant David that keeps laughing in the face of Goliath. It's an incredibly cruel showcase of a policy that instead of damaging its target ended up being used as the culprit of all problems in Cuba, as propaganda organs and useful idiots have maintained since it became law. The collateral damage in this instance amounts to 11 million victims, a humanitarian cost far too high for keeping it in place. The US political establishment's stubbornness and unwillingness to accept its failure is no longer a valid excuse, even less so considering the increasing trade between the two countries.
Impressions of Cubans in Cuba are totally different to those of the expatriate community, mainly centered in Miami. Many people I spoke to in Cuba, not just regular folks but opposition and civil society leaders, see fitting that it is lifted immediately. In fact, Oswaldo Paya, Marta Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca, for instance, have declared that the embargo should be lifted. Put this thought to the expat community though, or the Republican establishment, and one becomes a pro-Castro, Che-loving, communist in a matter of milliseconds. In this respect I think that it's rather easy to have such opinion, while not having to put up with its alleged consequences every minute of the day.
Remove the embargo-rug under Castro's feet, and Cubans will start thinking “hang on a minute, how come we’ve suffered this tremendous ordeal owing to the embargo, and it turns that it has been lifted and yet we continue living in hell?” The current restlessness is likely to expand like wild fire.
The US has an historic opportunity now: call upon Raul to negotiate an end to the embargo, whereby sanctions will be lifted provided a set of conditions --such as freeing all 300+ political prisoners, make recently signed civil and political rights treaties into law*, allow for free and transparent elections to take place, lift travel bans, etc.-- are met. The Cuban regime, still ruled by Fidelistas, is likely to refuse.
The US should lift the embargo nonetheless, making a lot of noise about it, for it stands to regain lost leverage, respect and credibility, putting its many critics to shame.
But more importantly doing so will unleash forces within Cuba that could well end up bringing the changes initially intended by the measure, which, most certainly, will force Raul's hand to open up much quicker.