Drinking rum until I understand the Cuban embargo

Drinking rum until I understand the Cuban embargo

Peter Van Buren
It was easier for me to enter Cuba than it was for me to come back to the United States. “Be sure to try our rum while you’re here!” said the Cuban immigration official. “You’ll need to pay duty on the rum you declared,” grumped the American customs officer a week later, after the retinal scan, facial recognition scan, photo, passport inspection, and bag check that welcomed me home.

The rum is in a way what a trip to Cuba for an American is really all about. Rum, and “el bloqueo”.
It becomes the first Spanish term you learn after the glasses are filled: el bloqueo, the blockade, the economic and political embargo. 

It accomplished little of substance in Cuba except perhaps to impoverish some while fostering the corruption that enriches others. And like that other imperial boil, the United States naval base and prison at Guantanamo, the embargo sits atop Cuba as a symbolic wet blanket of American foreign policy, maintained by presidents Democratic and Republican alike.

The embargo is also why you can’t buy Cuban rum in America.

Educated or not, old or young, they all asked: why does the United States maintain the embargo? Fidel Castro is dead. His successor, his brother Raul, soon will be. The Soviet Union is no more. The excesses of the Cold War, when Cuba sought to export its revolution, are now just adventure stories old men misremember to their bored grandsons.

The stated purpose of the embargo is to pressure the Cuban government toward democratization. American businesses cannot invest in Cuba. Cubans cannot sell their agricultural products in the United States. 

 There was a limited loosening of the embargo as it applied to tourists under the Obama administration (and a titular change of the American Interests Section in Havana into an embassy; “unofficial” diplomacy never really ceased) followed by a planned re-tightening of tourist travel by President Trump.

“My whole life all I know is the Americans don’t come,” said one Cuban, a retired school teacher. “The Russians came. Canadian tourists we have everywhere, some Chinese. Fidel brought over many visitors from Africa, but no one from the United States. It’s only about 90 miles that way, you know.” 

Don’t the Cuban people want freedom I asked? Yes, of course, but the embargo doesn’t seem to have had much effect on that and it’s been a lifetime, answered most. And how is the president of the United States prohibiting the import of spare car parts promoting democracy in Cuba anyway?

What is left among the empty glasses is the sad truth that the embargo still exists because it is popular among Cuban-Americans in the United States, and American candidates courting this voter pool know it. That’s changing: polls show younger and more recently-arrived Cuban-American voters hold more liberal attitudes toward easing the embargo. Demographics in south Florida may someday help end the last relic of the Cold War in the western hemisphere.

The critical element of American foreign policy towards the Caribbean’s largest nation is based mostly on the favor of a shrinking pool of aging voters. And that’s where I gave up. It turns out I can’t drink enough rum, even in Cuba, for the embargo to make real sense. If someday if Cuba does achieve a different form of government, the people will have a lot to learn under democracy about how undemocratic such systems can be.

*This abrgide article is taken from Reuters