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It’s far too early to make definitive pronouncements about the political character of these protests. Quite likely, the people in the streets represent a mixture of factions with very different complaints and long-term agendas.
One thing that is clear is that shortages in food, medicine, electricity, and other basic goods were the immediate spark for the protests. (The stores that have been looted are controversial because they sell expensive products to foreigners who can pay in currency that most Cubans don’t possess.) American politicians who long to topple the Cuban government have been pointing to these conditions as they call for intervention.
For example, Democratic congresswoman Val Demings, who represents Florida’s 10th district, has linked the protesters’ calls for “freedom from disease, poverty, and corruption” to the need for “freedom from tyranny and dictatorship.” To secure these freedoms, Demings argues, “The White House must move swiftly.”
But what sort of swift action does she want Joe Biden to take? She can’t mean that the United States should impose crippling economic sanctions on Cuba or that it should support and provide sanctuary to terrorists who carry out bombings and assassinations on the island. All of that’s been happening since the Kennedy administration. It’s hard to see what’s left on the table except direct military intervention.
Miami mayor Francis Suarez has been more explicit. “The people of Cuba,” he says, need “some sort of international help,” including intervention from the United States in “some form or fashion, whether it’s food, medicine, or militarily.”
Cuba has a long and heroic track record of shipping medical aid to other nations. Sending food or medicine to the island during its own crisis would be an excellent idea — especially since US policy is one of the direct causes of the shortages. But a military intervention would be a disaster on every possible level.
Democratic socialists value free speech, multiparty elections, independent trade unions, and workplace democracy. We shouldn’t deny that Cuba’s society is flawed in these and other ways. Nor should we assume that every frustrated Cuban who’s taken to the street is a CIA puppet or an advocate of privatizing Cuba’s health care system. But anyone who thinks US intervention would lead to better outcomes and not vastly worse ones has lost touch with reality.
To see what kind of government US meddling would produce, look at neighboring Haiti, whose president the US Marines removed in 2004. Anyone who believes US intervention in Cuba would bring about a stable, prosperous liberal democracy first needs to explain why Haiti is wracked by dystopian levels of poverty, inequality, corruption, and political violence.
If anything, a serious attempt to topple Cuba’s government to impose a US-friendly alternative could end up looking less like America’s ugly but relatively short-term interventions in Haiti and more like the war in Vietnam. Cuba’s government came to power through a popular revolution that still has a significant base of support. It’s preposterous to think that the United States could overthrow that government without large numbers of people taking up arms in response.
America’s forever war in Afghanistan has been going on for almost two decades. The waves of bloodshed and chaos caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq are still with us. That anyone could believe, in 2021, that intervening in Cuba would make things better is a chilling testament to the blinding power of ideology.
If the US government truly wanted to help the Cuban people, there’s an easy and obvious way: end the sanctions. Every single one of the shortages that protesters are talking about has at least been worsened by the US embargo. The answer isn’t more intervention. It’s less.
Right-wing anti-communists often want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they deny that the embargo is a significant contributing factor to hardships in Cuba — arguing that the shortages are almost entirely caused by the flaws in Cuba’s system. On the other hand, they insist that it’s essential the embargo stay in place. But why? If it really has no major effect on Cuba’s economy, how could it be an important tool to pressure the Cuban government to meet US demands? If it really isn’t exacerbating the island’s economic problems, why not prove that by normalizing trade relations?
Last month, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to call on the United States to lift the embargo. Only the United States and Israel voted no. (Ukraine, Colombia, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil were the only abstentions.) And 184 nations voted yes.
It’s time to listen to the world’s condemnation. The embargo needs to end.
Ben Burgis is a philosophy professor and the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left. He is host of the podcast Give Them An Argument.