The election of Democrat Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States is without precedent in the history of that country. For the first time, a candidate of color won the highest seat in the nation where racisms was institutionalized just a half century ago and where discrimination against minorities is still rampant. Never has an election sparked so much interest and enthusiasm not only in the United States but throughout the world. Weighed down by eight catastrophic years of the Bush administration that has brought the world economy to the brink of abyss and has inundated the planet with insecurity, the people of the world have unanimously chosen a young senator from Illinois over his republican adversary John McCain, considered the heir of George W. Bush.1
Havana did not escape the Obama phenomenon and Cubans closely followed the electoral process. There too the democratic candidate was preferred.2 "Without a doubt he is more intelligent, cultured, and even-tempered than his republican adversary," Fidel Castro said in reference to Obama. He is "the best U.S political speaker in decades," he added, acknowledging his "well articulated ideas." Conversely, the republican candidate John McCain is "old, bellicose, boorish, not very intelligent and in poor health," opined the leader of the Cuban Revolution.3
In fact, Obama is the first U.S. President to state his willingness to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro without preconditions.4 He also voiced his wish to "normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between our countries for the last five decades."5
The new U.S. President is expected to eliminate the cruel sanctions that the Bush administration imposed in 2004, which limit the amount of time Cuban emigrants can visit their homeland to 14 days every three years, thereby separating numerous families. They also limit remittances to only $100 per month.6 "This is both a humanitarian and a strategic issue. That decision […] has had a profoundly negative impact on the welfare of the Cuban people," Obama stated. Starting January 20, 2009, "I will grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island," he affirmed.7
In the near future, it is also possible that the Congress, dominated by democrats will put an end to the prohibition against U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. Currently they can travel to anywhere else in the world including China, Vietnam North Korea, but not to Cuba. The congress will also probably eliminate the restrictions on academic, cultural, and sports exchanges.
Imposed in July 1960, the U.S. economic embargo is the main obstacle to Cuba’s economic development. It has cost the Cuban economy $93 billion (USD) since its inception, $3.7 billion (USD) just in 2007. It affects the entire population; especially the most vulnerable sectors and 75% of Cubans were born under the sanctions regime.8
The international community overwhelmingly rejects the political sanctions. On October 29, 2008, the world voted against them for the 17th consecutive year. In fact, 185 of the 192 members of the UN General Assembly called for ending this punishment that brutalizes Cubans. Never has such a majority consensus been reached. Only the U.S., Israel and Palau voted against the resolution. The U.S. people oppose the embargo as well as the business community (especially the multinational oil companies), which sees a natural market falling into the hands of Chinese, European and Latin American investors. 9
Wayne S. Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Cuba, criticizes the U.S. policy against Cuba and calls for unilateral elimination of the embargo saying, "It’s stupid, it’s counterproductive and there is no international support for it." 10 "An end to the blockade against Cuba is what our people demand and now more than ever, when it is the unanimous demand of the international community," proclaimed Fidel Castro in his reflection on November 7, 2008.11
Obama, whose intelligence and astuteness are evident, could demonstrate his shrewdness by studying Cuban character and understanding that the language of force and threat is useless. Fidel Castro cautions: "There are those who still dream of bringing Cuba to its knees wielding the criminal blockade as a U.S. foreign policy tool against our country. If [the U.S.] again falls into that error, this useless policy against Cuba may remain in force for another half century."12
The government of Havana has extended a friendly hand to Washington on many occasions; each time it was met with obstinate rejection. Raúl Castro also extended the olive branch to the Bush administration twice, without success. President Castro has declared his willingness to openly dialogue with Barack Obama. "We hope that the next President changes the policy against Cuba and we hope for a complete normalization of relations," emphasized Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuban Foreign Minister.13
Obama would do well to finally recognize that Cuba is a sovereign and independent nation, and to base his future relations with Havana on reciprocity rather than on intervention in domestic affairs. Then Cubans will receive him with open arms and offer him only expressions of gratitude.
Barack Obama has an historical opportunity to change, once and for all, U.S.-Cuba policy and normalize relations between the two countries. Washington’s irrational punishment of the Cuban people is cruel, inhumane and unjustifiable. The young President Obama must rise to the hope that his election has sparked. All of humanity will be grateful.
Translated by Dawn Gables
1 John Leicester, «Obama Victory Sparks Cheers Around the Globe», The Associated Press, November 5, 2008.
2 Calvin Woodward, «Where Obama Stands on the Issues», The Associated Press, November 5, 2008.
3 Jeff Franks, «Obama Win Raises Cuban Hopes for Change», Reuters, November 5, 2008.
4 Fidel Castro Ruz, «Las elecciones del 4 de noviembre», Cuba Debate, November 3, 2008.
5 Barack Obama, «Our Main Goal: Freedom in Cuba», The Miami Herald, August21, 2007.
6 Colin L. Powell, Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, (Washington: United States Department of State, mayo de 2004). www.state.gov/documents/organization/32334.pdf (site consulted May 7, 2004).
7 Barack Obama, «Our Main Goal: Freedom in Cuba», op. cit.
8 Edith M. Lederer, «UN Again Urges US to Lift Embargo Against Cuba», The Associated Press, October 29, 2008.
10 Anita Snow, «Analisis: Obama Changes Could Test Castros’ Grip», November 8, 2008.
11 Fidel Castro Ruz, «El tercer huracán», Cuba Debate, November 7, 2008.
13 Edith M. Lederer, «Cuba Expects New US President to Lift Embargo», The Associated Press, October 30, 2008.
Salim Lamrani is a professor at the Université René Descartes París V and a French journalist specializing in Cuba-U.S. relations. He recently published Doble Moral. Cuba, la Unión Europea y los derechos humanos (Hondarriaba: Editorial Hiru, 2008).