U.S. President Barack Obama further eased trade and travel restrictions to Cuba on Friday, most notably allowing Americans to send up to $500 every three months to nonrelatives in Cuba as long as they are not senior government officials or senior members of the communist party.
The move is aimed at supporting private economic activity as well as to "help expand the economic independence of the Cuban people," according to a White House statement released January 14.
It will also make it easier for students, academics and religious groups to travel to the country in order to "enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society," according to the release.
Previously, remittances could only be sent to family members. In April 2009, just months after becoming president, Obama made historic changes to U.S. policy, lifting virtually all restrictions on remittances and visits to the island by family members. The White House said it was making the changes both for humanitarian reasons as well as to foster the beginning of "grassroots democracy."
The most recent changes come in the wake of a September announcement by the Cuban government that it would lay off 500,000 state employees by April 1. The state employs more than 85 percent of Cuba's 5.5 million workers.
It seems unlikely the timing of the Obama announcement is purely coincidental. The $500 is a large amount in a country where doctors make $20 a month. In addition to easing the transition for the half a million people to be laid off, the money could also help narrow deep divisions between those who have close family members abroad and those who don’t.
Last October, the UN General Assembly, for the 19th consecutive year, urged the Obama administration to end the U.S. trade embargo, in effect since 1962. The assembly voted 187-2 in favor of ending the embargo. The U.S. was joined only by Israel in voting to keep sanctions.
I was studying in Havana when Obama was inaugurated and was pleasantly surprised to see that he was overwhelmingly supported by the Cuban people, who hoped that relations between the two countries would improve and that the embargo would end under Obama’s watch.
There is no doubt that Cuba's regime is repressive and often does not have the best interests of its own people at heart. But while the trade embargo does put financial pressure on the government, it puts more pressure on ordinary Cubans.
Among other things, the embargo deprives hospitals of diagnostic equipment for detecting breast, colon and prostate cancer, as well as antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and materials needed to diagnose and cure pediatric illnesses, as documented in a report prepared by the UN Secretary General and presented to the General Assembly.
The embargo -- or "blockade," as the Cubans call it -- also gives the government a convenient excuse for its own failings. While Cubans are overwhelmingly unhappy with their present economic situation and lack of freedom, I found that they seldom blamed their own government, as the Cuban state always had the U.S. to use as a scapegoat.
Ending the embargo could force Cubans to face the fact that the U.S. is not solely to blame for their situation and to make the Cuban government itself more accountable for its own shortcomings.
Both of Obama's moves to loosen trade and travel restrictions are important and necessary, but Wayne Smith, the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and current director of the Center for International Policy's Cuba Program, perhaps said it best in a recent interview with CNN:
"[The embargo] really hasn't done the slightest bit of good," he said. "Our whole policy has to be called a failure. It has not forced the Cubans to change. The best thing we can do is to have greater contact with the Cubans, a greater flow of people and ideas and so forth. You can have more impact that way than by trying to wall everybody off."
-- Courtney Brooks