By DeWayne Wickham
The Obama administration’s decision to ease the U.S. embargo restrictions on travel and the transfer of money to Cuba must have seemed like a smart political move to the presidential advisers who fashioned this policy change.
It gave Cuban Americans what a majority of them want: greater freedom to return to their ancestral home and to send unlimited amounts of money to relatives in Cuba. And coming as it did just days before Barack Obama was to meet with the leaders of 33 Latin American nations, it eased some of the pressure on the president, who during his White House campaign promised to dramatically change the way this country engages its enemies.
Cuba has been on America’s enemies list for nearly half a century. The aging U.S. embargo was meant to strangle the economic life out of that nation and topple its communist regime. On both counts, the embargo has been a dismal failure. It has succeeded only in sharply diminishing American influence in Cuba and in straining this country’s relations with virtually every other nation in this hemisphere.
As a geopolitical move, what the Obama administration did to relax the embargo was a good first step. It does not, however, address a peculiarity of the current island divide that the U.S. played no small role in creating.
During the four-year U.S. occupation of Cuba (1898 – 1902) following the end of the Spanish-American War, the American government demanded racial segregation of Cuba’s army and imposed Jim Crow practices throughout Cuban society. Those racist practices led to the massacre of nearly 6,000 blacks in May 1912, members of a political party that agitated for an end to racial discrimination.
Little changed for black Cubans until Fidel Castro came to power and gave them a bigger role in the life of the country. In turn, they became the core of his support – and the least likely to join the Cuban exile community in South Florida.
But as a humanitarian move, it is a weak gesture. Why? The vast majority of Cubans who have moved to the United States are white. While that country’s government reports people of African descent make up just 35 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people, many Cuban scholars say that nearly 70 percent of the population is black or mullato.
Allowing only Cuban Americans to send money to their relatives in Cuba reinforces a racial stratification that is deeply rooted in policies forced upon Cuba over a century ago.
“Supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their future and that of their country is in the national interest of the United States,” the Obama administration said in a statement released by the White House when the relaxation of restrictions on travel and money transfers was announced. But the Obama policy inadvertently discriminates against the majority of Cubans – who like him – are of African descent.
To ease this problem, the president should permit all Americans – not just Cuban Americans – to travel to Cuban, and allow anyone in this country to give financial help to anyone in Cuba. This will open the way for black churches and others in America’s black communities to aid black Cubans, who are now isolated from such help by the embargo rules.
The Obama administration is right to try to strengthen contacts and “good will” between the Cuban and American people. Such bridge building holds out a greater potential for change on that island than the Cold War era embargo that remains in place.
But this outreach must not be blind to the painful realities of Cuba’s racial division – a divide that the United States had a hand in creating.