Dressed in a blazer, sweater, and gloves to protect him from the cold of a DC winter, petite 79-year old Reverend Raul Suarez loves to tell his story.
The Reverend asked us to stand up and stretch our hands out towards him, as he stretched his hands out towards us.
“We have always known we are very different: I am Cuban, you are North American. We speak different languages and have different cultures. But today, through sitting here and talking together, I think we all realize how similar we are. At the core of it all, we are all human.”
The man then blessed our group, just as he had done with a group of 25 congressional aides the day before.
This is how we, a group of students, religious leaders, and human rights activists ended our incredible encounter with Reverend Raul Suárez.
The founder and director of Cuba’s Martin Luther King Center, Suarez came to Washington recently, along with five other Cuban religious leaders. They met with lawmakers and Obama administration officials about our nation’s outdated and ineffective embargo against the Caribbean country.
This nearly-55-year old policy is actually a set of several laws that impose commercial, financial, and economic restrictions on the small island country. Ostensibly, the embargo was supposed to build popular resistance that might culminate in ousting the Castro government.
That didn’t happen when Fidel Castro ran Cuba.
That hasn’t happened since his brother Raul took over as Cuba’s leader in 2008 either.
Half a century later, our government is sticking with this Cold War vestige.
The embargo has outlived the Soviet Union by 25 years. Cubans have paid the price for this failed policy for decades. They’ve suffered from severe restrictions in their access to critical medicines and meager rationing amid food shortages.
Over the years, Cuba has found ways to shore up their economy by investing in small-scale agriculture, preserving their first-class medical training, and forging economic agreements with burgeoning economies like that of Brazil and China.
Our leaders must finally answer a longstanding question: Has the Cuban embargo outgrown any usefulness it might ever have had?
The Reverend and his colleagues were invited to DC this year by religious and social leaders precisely because they believe that there is finally a political opening on this issue. Not only are more U.S. officials speaking out against the embargo, but recent polls show that a majority of Americans support an easing of the restrictions placed on Cuba. Perhaps most surprising is that these polls now show over 75 percent of Cuban-Americans (historically a staunchly anti-Castro group) favoring a normalization of relations with Cuba.
I have the distinct pleasure of running an organization that takes ordinary Americans on educational delegations in Latin America. One of my favorite parts of the job is hearing from those who travel to Cuba to find out for themselves what this mysterious nation is all about.
This year, we’re seeing record demand for these delegations. Many of these travelers don’t return thinking Cuba is a paradise. Yet most do find they come home with a new perspective. This is the power of people-to-people exchanges. And many go back to Cuba again and again in search of a deeper understanding of how U.S. policy affects that nearby country.
In January, a group of U.S. Senators travelled to Cuba. These lawmakers came back praising the country’s incredible health-care system, which has managed to bring Cuba’s child-mortality rate below our own. Cuba’s life expectancy also stands well above ours, even though the standard of living there is lower.
Upon their return, these lawmakers have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo. They say it’s bad for U.S. businesses and is failing to change the Cuban economic regime.
Democrats and Republicans alike have spoken out against this failed policy and reminded the public that we have re-established relations with past Cold War enemies like Vietnam and China, and should do the same with Cuba.
It’s time to retire this antiquated policy. Clearly, 55 years is more than long enough.