Cuba at a Crossroads



Dear Mr. President,

On May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine, Mohammed Ali defeated Sonny Liston in the first round by TKO. As Ali stood over Liston in triumph, photographer Neil Leifer captured one of the most iconic moments in sports history. 40 years later, this image was matted, framed and prominently displayed in your new Senate office suite. Now, perhaps it has accompanied you to the White House.

Ali was ahead of his time, a man of principles who speaks his mind. Ali is a thinking man's boxer. Less powerful than Liston, Frazier and Foreman, he understood how to unnerve his opponents before a bout. In his prime, Ali was controversial. He retired his Anglo name, rejected Christianity and went to jail for refusal to serve in Vietnam. They called him un-American and he was stripped of his boxing titles. He lost millions in revenue. He was an American dissident. Today, he is an American hero. He opened the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. He is your hero.

In 1996 and 98 Ali traveled to Cuba with medicine supplies blacklisted by the US embargo.

He did it because he understood that American conglomerates dominate the pharmaceutical and medical fields worldwide. He also knows that even if food and medicine were exempted from the embargo, the financial carnage the embargo leaves in its wake leaves Cubans like his friend Teofilo Stevenson, unable to buy. Olympic gold medallist Stevenson, dubbed the Cuban Ali because of likeness and similarities, turned down Don King's offer of five million dollars to go pro in 1976 because he would have to defect from Cuba to accept it.

Mohammed Ali, a UN ambassador for peace, has called on the United States to end the embargo on Cuba.

The UN General Assembly has condemned the US embargo on Cuba every year since 1992 and demanded the US "take the necessary steps to repeal or invalidate" it. In 2000 and '01, this Resolution passed 167 to 3 with three abstentions. In 2002, it passed 173 votes to three, with four nations abstaining. In 2003, only two nations voted with the US.

In its 2002 report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations condemned the embargo as "the main cause of malnutrition in Cuba." UNICEF has condemned the embargo. UNESCO condemned the embargo, saying it "violates the rights of the Cuban people." The United Nations Population Fund condemned the embargo for deterioration of Cuban living standards. The World Health Organization condemned the embargo for its "very significant negative impact on the overall performance of the national economy" which "compromises the quality of life of the population, specifically the children, the elderly and the infirm." It notes that the embargo increases the cost of milk for children by 600% and puts medical equipment out of reach. Amnesty International condemned the embargo because it "helped undermine the enjoyment of key civil and political rights in Cuba by fueling a climate in which the fundamental rights of freedom of association, expression and assembly are routinely denied." The US embargo against Cuba is described as "the longest and most severe set of trade sanctions ever imposed on any one nation" by international health organizations.

Mr. President, it is not a coincidence that the embargo is nearly 50 years old and Fidel Castro holds the world record for non-inherited longevity in power.

Mr. President, during the election campaign you said that, as president, you would stand before the UN General Assembly to let the world know that "America is back." Now is the time, and I know of no better way to do it, than to boldly announce that the US will heed the call made every year to drop the embargo on Cuba.

Unable to dislodge Castro, the ever-frustrated embargo on Cuba has metastasized into an absurd, unsustainable policy at odds with who we are. Doomed to failure because of its unilateral nature, the embargo has become an ersatz blockade. On February 28, 2004, James Sabzali, a Canadian citizen, was charged with 75 counts of violating a 1917 US law - the "Trading with the Enemy Act" and one count of conspiracy. He was convicted of selling water purification supplies to Cuba - mostly from Canada, but also from the United States, in violation of the embargo. He grossed US $3 million in sales. A laughable sum for business. Sabzali, a Canadian, ended up with an criminal record for violating American law even though he lived in another country when he sold goods to Cuba. When he visited the US, he was charged with smuggling, taken to court, given a year's probation and fined $10,000. The hapless Sabzali spent three years in the US under strict travel restrictions, including 14 months when forced to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and restricted to no more than an hour drive from his home - even to visit his wife and children back in Canada. The irony is that the extended family of Osama bin Laden was allowed by the Bush White House and State Department to leave the US immediately after 9/11 on private jets even as the FAA ordered all aircraft grounded. American intelligence never got the chance to question the bin Ladens about the attack on the WTC and Pentagon.

I think you will agree, Mr. President, that safe drinking water is a human right. Certainly, had a water borne epidemic appeared, proponents of the embargo would have seized upon it as proof of Castro's disregard for human life. At the same time, they zealously condemn businessmen like Sabzali, whose crime was to sell Cubans the wherewithal to provide clean water, defeating the US embargo.

What is it about Cuba that Gives Embargo Proponents the Fits?

Is it Fidel Castro? At 82, Castro is a shadow of a man. Unable to speak in public, he is reduced to photo ops with visiting dignitaries (last call for photos with Fidel!) and quaint reflections in Granma, Cuba's daily rag. Cuba's Gross Domestic Product is smaller than the GDP of the Bronx and its army is the same size as the New York City Police Department. Fidel, Raul and the Cuban government certainly don't have the military or economic might to challenge the United States. Words are all they have left and their ideology is in tatters. Nationalism and defiance are all that remain.

Could it be Because Castro Corrupts the Minds of Men?

Castro has no corporate public relations mouthpiece to compete for influence in the media outside Cuba, no entertainment empire to shape values and perceptions of young people, no recording industry or marketing gurus to shape public opinion outside Cuba about anything. But when Oliver Stone, Kevin Costner or Naomi Campbell does lunch with Castro, the embargo crowd goes ballistic.

Could it be Because Cuba will cost Americans their Jobs?

With the exception of sunshine in December, Cuba doesn't produce anything of value that could threaten US market share of world trade if the embargo were lifted. Actually the balance of trade would be far in our favor. Cuba has little of importance to sell but needs everything, and that alone is why the embargo has been able to persist for so long. Cuban music has found a comfortable but obscure cultural niche that's unlikely to compete with MTV or BET. Cuba's peasant cuisine (rice and beans) won't lure Americans away Boston Market and Popeye's.

Could it be Because Cuba is a One Party, Totalitarian and Communist Police State with Political Prisoners?

In spite of all the embargo rhetoric about the need to punish Castro for being a dictator and a stain on human rights, the truth is that US foreign policy is un-burdened with such trifles. Republican and Democratic presidents and congress-people alike have advocated cruel dictators, hard-line Communists, petro-monarchs and rude oligarchs.... and won accolades for doing so. Remember Nixon and Mao? Truman and Tito? Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein? Constructive Engagement in South Africa, when Thatcher and Reagan said Mandela was a terrorist? What about support for Batista in Cuba, Ceausescu in Romania, Videla in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile, Diem in South Viet Nam, Marcos in the Philippines, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza (our son of a b) in Nicaragua, (Blowtorch Bob) d'Aubisson in El Salvador, Noriega the drug dealer in Panama, Papa and Baby Doc in Haiti, Musharif in Pakistan, the sadistic Shah of Iran, a series of death-squad military juntas in Guatemala, kleptomaniac Mobuto Sese Seko in Zaire, bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan (Reagan and Sylvester Stallone thought they were freedom fighters)... the list of despots tolerated and encouraged by Washington is quite extensive and includes Cuba's former dictator himself, General Batista. What makes Cuba under the Castros worthy of unique treatment now?

35 years after 55,000 Americans were killed to keep the dominos from falling in south-east Asia, and when that failed, an economic embargo applied to make sure the Communists never recovered after being bombed back to the stone age, Nike has three footwear factories and Dominoes pizzas are falling on dinner tables in Vietnam, a one party, totalitarian Communist state.

Is it Because Cuba is Atheist, Denies Freedom of Religious Choice and Thought?

In 1992 the Cuban constitution dropped references to atheism. Catholicism, Santeria and Judaism are openly and freely practiced. Prominent churches on Havana's key 5th Avenue are open for worship seven days a week. In 1998 Pope John Paul, credited with bringing Communism down in Poland, met with Castro in Havana and stated that the US embargo is "monstrously immoral." Jimmy Carter, outspoken on human rights issues everywhere, visited Cuba in 2002 and called for the embargo to be lifted. In 2003, Mikhail Gorbachev condemned the embargo in a Washington Post editorial "The Last Relic of the Cold War." Mr. President, it is inconceivable that, against the better judgment of these men, the embargo could have value as a tool to change Cuba for the better.

Could it be Because Castro Nationalized American Property Without Compensation? Compensation claims in Cuba by nationals of Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Spain and France were resolved long ago. The disruption of ties between the US and Cuba, codified by the embargo, makes a compensation plan impossible and, using circuitous logic, serves as justification to continue the embargo. Complicating matters further, losses sustained by Cuba as a result of the embargo give Cuba a claim for damages and impede its ability to pay.

Mr. President,

Cuba's automotive fleet is the oldest in the world, a rolling museum. 60,000 specimens of battered, pre-1960 Detroit muscle and chrome roam the island, lost in a time warp. Maintained by home made spare parts, infinite patience and strong will, the ancient fleet has become a source of pride and a tourist attraction. It is also a metaphor for Cuba's political system and US policy.

They all belong to another era. The ancient fleet, Cuba's political system and the US embargo are all obsolete.

Now is the time, Mr. President, to drive us in a new direction. Now is the time for change we can believe in.


This essay is the introduction to Cuba at a Crossroads, a new scholarly book about Cuba. Daniel Bruno Sanz is an author and educator. He writes on financial and foreign policy affairs. Eighteen months before the November 2008 election he predicted the recession and used econometrics to predict Obama's victory in Why Obama Will Win in 2008 & 2012. He encourages criticism of his essays and welcomes inquiries at