The French philosophe and essayist Michel Montaigne often used the phrase “What do I know?” to express the subjective limits of knowledge. What can any individual really know about the world? About others who inhabit it? I pose this question to myself often. It’s part of the job description for being a critical sociologist. I scratch my head in puzzlement each time that I gather data to analyze my compatriots in South Florida. What do I really know about Cuban Americans? Many will jump to answer, “You know nothing. You are clueless,” and they might be right. But you would think that after nearly thirty years of writing about and studying Cubans in the United States I would know something about what makes our “moral community” tick. But when faced with the question Que sais-je?, which translates into a very Cuban, “Qué sé yo?” I have to admit that many of the moving parts of the community remain a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a pastelito.
Take, for example, the resurgence of pro-embargo sentiments among South Florida Cuban American. It’s a grim turn even if not totally surprising given the Jarabe de Trump that many have savored in recent years.
What is driving this macabre enthusiasm to endorse an archaic, cold war policy designed in 1962 to isolate Cuba and bring about regime change because, as stated in Kennedy’s infamous Proclamation 3447, the country is “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system; and, in light of the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet Communism with which the Government of Cuba is publicly aligned?” Seriously? There is still support for a policy designed to “protect” the Americas from the threat of “Sino-Soviet Communism?” Directed at Cuba? Does this policy remain a vital element in the foreign policy of the United States? The world has changed so much but we seem to have changed so little.
Maybe there is more behind this seeming callous attitude of “que se jodan” exhibited by my fellow denizen of the Cuban diaspora than sheer opportunism. After all, we are not all YouTube mavens making a nice living peddling fear and disinformation. Most of us care about our friends and relatives on the island. About half of us send money when we can afford it and sending food via Katapulk is becoming a thing. Many on the island depend on us, if not for survival, for support, especially during this horrific pandemic period.
Maybe championing the embargo, in the minds of those who do, is part of a larger plan. Maybe supporters see in the embargo a part of a broader strategy to improve the lives of Cubans throughout the island. Qué sé yo?
I want to understand why so many of us insist on supporting a foreign policy implemented to punish and isolate when we know that change in this globalized world is brought about by contact and negotiation. Why do people support the embargo? Why do they support lifting the embargo?
With the help of the colleagues at OnCuba News, I floated a questionnaire on their platform and various social media streams (FB, Twitter) to try to understand why Cuban Americans either support or oppose the nearly sixty-year-old sanction. This is not a scientific sample, but the 361 responses (as of May 19) allow us to create broad categories to describe the types of reasons shaping opinions.
So while 79% of folks responding to our questionnaire are against the embargo/bloqueo we can’t say that this percentage is an accurate reflection of attitudes among all Cuban Americans (the 2020 FIU Cuba Poll reported that 60% of Cuban Americans in South Florida support the continuation of the embargo). We can, however, examine the types of reasons given for supporting or opposing the embargo and create a typology of responses that, in all probability, accurately represents the variety of reasons why most Cuba Americans oppose or support the policy.
First, a few details about the sample.
- This is a “self-selected” sample rather than a probability (aka scientific) sample. Respondents chose to answer the questions rather than being recruited to answer them because their participation is required by the probability formula.
- While most scientific surveys on this topic detail the attitudes of South Florida or Florida Cuban Americans, here we are dealing with a questionnaire distributed through the internet. We don’t know where the respondents live (I didn’t ask) but we know that they are not all from South Florida.
- About 75% of the respondents are Cuban (88% born in Cuba) or Cuban Americans (12% born in the U.S.A.) so non-Cubans are also in the mix since their reasons might be shared by Cuban Americans.
- Approximately 41% of those born in Cuba left the island after 2010 so the newest migrants were particularly interested in expressing their views.
- Sixty percent are not registered to vote. The registered (or those expecting to register before the next election) are turning their backs on the two major parties and identify themselves as Independents (68%).
- The age distribution represents the Census figures surprisingly well with the mean age between 40-50, and more men answered than other gender categories (65%).
It is likely that no matter your age, or your gender or if/when you left Cuba, some of the perspectives on the embargo presented here will resonate with you.
What are some advantages of maintaining the embargo?
This question was asked only of those who responded in support of the embargo (20% of the sample). The advantages associated with maintaining the embargo by its supporters fall into three categories. The embargo 1) exerts economic pressures on the government leading to some version of regime change, 2) exerts economic pressure on the government that will lead to liberalization of current economic and political relationships without regime change, and 3) expresses a position based on what we might call moral principles.
- To a large majority embargo of supporters, the policy serves as a means of exerting direct, mortal pressure on the Cuban government. This is expressed often in bitter, crude, hate-filled language or in more strategic but no less unwavering phrases. (An * signifies responses written originally in English. The responses are unedited. Each was selected for being typical of other similar responses.)
- Let those SOBs who govern drown.
- Increase pressure on the govt. Open the eyes of the younger generation.*
- To not give money to a government that is oppressing the people.
- Demolish the dictatorship and establish democracy on the island.
- To not finance a dictatorship.
- Put pressure on the dictatorship to concede power.
- Asphyxiate the regime.
- Encourage change in regime.*
- Cut the currency flow to the dictatorship.
- To try and get rid of the communist government and have free elections.*
- Reducing funding for homophobic dictatorship.*
- Could bring about a popular rebellion that leads to the exit from power of the dictators.
- That those that govern leave when they are left with nothing.
- That the people, as a consequence of the lack of products in the stores and monetary inflation, wake up and have an uprising that puts pressure on the dictatorship to leave power.
- Nothing was achieved by the Obama opening. The government took the money from the cruise ships, etc. To strengthen the pólice and the repression. The rest of the money was used by the leadership and their families for personal benefit.
- The second most numerous responses come from respondents who envision the embargo as providing motivation to the Cuban government to liberalize, not overturn, the existing economic and political structures. The liberalization of the current structures will lead to a process of “democratization” without regime change and including the establishment of a new economic order that values individual entrepreneurship, guarantees higher salaries and a better quality of life. In this view, the embargo is seen as having the supra-organizational ability to make the Cuban government reflect on the errors of its current economic policies.
- Force the Cuban government to make internal economic changes.
- I am not a fan of the embargo but at this juncture, the Cuban government has to open up or asphyxiate.
- The first thing that has to go is the absurd measures that the government has placed on private producers in Cuba.
- It creates the conditions for the Cuban government to liberalize the Cuban economy so that the private enterprises can conduct financial transactions directly and freely.
- The third category of respondents relies on unspecified, absolute principles to justify the support for the embargo. The embargo represents some version of what “ought” to be, giving little consideration to what actually “is.”
- Let the world know that the U.S. government doesn’t approve of the human rights violations that take place in Cuba.*
- There is no benefit to gain from keeping the embargo but the reasons it was created in the first place are still there.
- There are no advantages but it should be maintained.
- Keep moral pressure on the government.
- You can not concede anything to communism.
- To lift it would signify recognition of a communist regime.
Concerns for the direct impact of the embargo on the Cuban people (el pueblo cubano), are never mentioned. El pueblo is only mentioned in its relationship with the Cuban government.
- Pressure the dictatorship that does not respect the human rights of the Cuban people.
- Someone has to support the Cuban people. Who better than the United States.
Regardless of their reasons for supporting the embargo, these “hardliners” are sure it will bring about political changes (80%) as well as economic changes (74%). Half of the embargo supporters (51%) are optimistic that the political and economic changes will occur within less than the next five years. Some 22% attribute the political changes occurring now on the island as being motivated by the embargo.
What are the advantages of lifting the embargo?
The respondents opposing the embargo have more nuanced reasons for their position. The 79% opposing the embargo express reasons that can be categorized into four broad themes: 1) lifting the embargo will assist in the economic development of Cuba; 2) lifting the embargo will remove the justification used by the Cuban government to explain the shortcomings of the economic and political system; 3) lifting the embargo is morally the right thing to do given its infringement on the sovereignty of Cuba, and 4) lifting the embargo will improve the international reputation of the United States,
- The economic development expectations are the most numerous and the most nuanced of all responses. Lifting the embargo will motivate economic development which, in turn, will lead, to a broad liberalization of the overall economic system, with a dynamic expansion of private and entrepreneurial enterprises.
The most significant characteristic of these responses, when contrasted with the pro-embargo responses, is how often the terms “pueblo” or “ciudadanos” or “familia” are invoked. Here are some representative responses envisioning the economic benefits of an embargo-less Cuba.
- To strengthen the family. Growth of the Cuban economy.
- Improve the well-being of the Cuban people.
- Improvement of people’s lives in Cuba and business opportunities. *
- Freedom to allow for the full development of the Cuban people.
- Cuba is asphyxiating. The people are going through a lot. It is not just.
- Better quality of life for Cubans.
- The people suffer. The embargo is a wrong-headed and archaic policy.
- Empower the people.
- End a silent war. Bring peace and better opportunities and well-being to the Cuban people. It would bring the diáspora and those living on the island closer together. Would create a new economic and social horizon for the Cuban people.
- Economic development, prosperity, and political liberties.
- It has failed to overturn the political system and just punishes ordinary Cubans. Lifting the embargo will help ordinary Cubans and create business opportunities for American businesses. *
- Cheaper imported goods. More Access to North American services and goods. Increase Cuban exports.
- Opens up bilateral cooperation and collaboration. Culturally it would be a great step forward. Humanitarian support for the Cuban people. As civilized human beings, we should think of the welfare of others.
In a cogent commentary, one respondent sums up the views of many who consider that the heaviest weight of the embargo falls on the Cuban people, not on the government, as pro-embargo respondents would like to think:
- Ultimately, the embargo is felt by all of the Cuban people and those in the governing cúpula do not feel it. Believe me, I was the neighbor of a “big fish” in the government and those folks do not feel the blockade even a little bit.
Lifting the embargo would energize the Cuban economy “practically instantaneously.” Over 93% of embargo opponents believe that the economic changes will occur quickly, within a year (49%) or between two to five years (36%).
- Some anti-embargo respondents emphasized how lifting the embargo would deprive the Cuban government of its main excuse for why the economy is faltering and unveil the weaknesses in the system. This is the second most numerous type of response among anti-embargo respondents.
- The demolition of the argument that all the problems are the fault of the embargo. It would become obvious that the centralized system of governance is inefficient.
- Eliminate the justification used by the Cuban government not to improve.
- Would remove the main argument that the dictatorship has to hid its inefficiencies.
- Eliminate the supposed ideological “enemy” of the revolution.
- To me, it would be the end of the justifications put forward to explain the inefficiency of the system. Could not say that the disaster is due to the embargo.
- To see if the real problems of Cuba are caused by the embargo or it is an internal problem caused by the incapable government, which Cuba has always had.
- If the embargo is lifted, it will end the political excuse of the Cuban government to blame the USA for all the Cuban problems. *
- It would become more evident what problems are caused by “internal blockades” in Cuba that are independent of the U.S. imposed embargo. This will lend more transparency to the economic processes of the country and would allow Cubans to demand more efficient operations.
- Some argue that the embargo infringes on the sovereignty of the Cuban state and impedes its ability to develop as an equal member of the international community of nations. Lifting the embargo will allow Cuba to succeed or fail on its own terms, without unnatural and immoral restrictions on its activities.
- So that Cubans can build the country as best they can, on equal footing with other sovereign countries of the world.
- It would be a just action and would allow Cubans to demonstrate what they can or can do as a country.
- Justice would be done.
- The embargo is immoral.
- For simple humanitarian purposes. Only Cuban can hold out against a blockade lasting 62 years.
- Would allow the government to respond directly to the demands of the Cuban people without seeing the United States behind every demand.
- A small portion of the responses highlighted the impact that lifting the embargo would have on U.S. international reputation.
- The main advantage of lifting the embargo would be that the US would cease to be the bully who attacks the weak of the world. *
- Would improve the negative image that the United States has in Latin America and the world.
- The U.S. would not be isolated any more in the OAS on this topic.
- It would prevent deeper alignment of Cuba with China and Russia. *
- The U.S. would improve its image in the Latin American región.
Like their pro embargo nemeses, embargo opponents also believe that resuming regular trade and in lifting the embargo will bring about political changes on the island (53%) but over a quarter (27%) are not convinced that the lifting the embargo will directly have a political impact (as contrasted with the meager 6% of pro-embargo respondents who expressed ambiguity about the political impact of continuing embargo).
The political changes foreseen by the anti-embargo respondents are complex and mediated by the economic impact unleashed by lifting the sanctions. Some believe that the Cuban government will gain in prestige and reputation if it successfully adjusts to the post-embargo period, others believe that lifting the embargo will force the leadership to answer serious questions about system inefficiency. Still others foresee a softening of current attitudes towards the United States as the perpetual enemy and this will allow internal debates with the government to occur without the stigmatization of being labeled “counter-revolutionary.”
So What do we know? “The Rant”
Embargo supporters and opponents share one characteristic: both groups believe that bending U.S. policy to their position will bring about changes on the island. But there the similarity ends.
Pro-embargo respondents are obsessed with the economic strangulation of the Cuban government. Most anti-embargo respondents are equally obsessed with the damage that the policy exerts on the Cuban people.
The change that most anti-embargo advocates envision is an improvement in the quality of life of ordinary Cubans. Change, for most pro-embargo respondents, equals regime change, the dissolution of the Cuban government. It is not a complicated argument.
It is also not a good argument. It forces supporters of the embargo to explain why sixty years of pressure, continuing through the devastation of the Periodo Especial and a global pandemic, have not brought about the changes they expected. Has new evidence surfaced to make us think that the embargo will do now what it has been unable to do for the previous sixty years? What the embargo at its most restrictive and the Period Especial could not do together? I’d like to see that evidence. Magical thinking is not evidence.
Yet those proposing to lift the embargo must also answer difficult questions. How can the Machiavellian, hubristic political system of the United States be persuaded to rescind a policy which has failed to impose the power of the empire? Should the strategy be to emphasize the national interests of the U.S. in lifting the embargo or the humanitarian crisis facing the Cuban people? (Remember that even during the height of Trumpmania, over 60% of South Florida Cuban Americans favored a temporary lifting of the embargo during the pandemic crisis.)
Of course, receiving the support of Cuban American elected officials would be an enormous help but the impossibility of that happening leads to another conundrum. Why do Cuban Americans continue to elect officials who support an anachronistic policy that brings so much suffering to their compatriots on the island? Is the obsession with toppling the Cuban government so overwhelming that the suffering of the Cuban people is seen simply as collateral damage? Is this where we are as a community? Willing to throw the Cuban people under the güagüa to win an argument with Fidel’s ghost? Or is it that Cuba is just not that important to us and our future as Cuban Americans?
I see a small, fragile outcropping of common ground. Both groups see their position as motivating economic change. Both groups, for different reasons, want to see the Cuban government loosen economic restrictions and diversify economic activity.
These are precisely the kinds of changes brought about by the Obama opening. These changes were substantial, given the brevity of the new order, and supported economic initiatives started by the Cuban government before Obama stirred the pot: an increase in non-government sector/private employment (from 16% in 2010 to 29% in 2015), the emergence of an entrepreneurial class, the diversification of the economy as well as the intangible, but no less real, excitement among the people in anticipation of a new dawn with the U.S.
These are outcomes of engagement that alter the relationship between the Cuban people and their government, as well as between the Cuban diaspora and the Cuban people, in ways that both pro-and anti-embargo forces seem to desire. I know what you’re thinking. Snowflakes don’t last long in Miami.
To be honest, I harbor no illusions that the Cuban American vox populi will raise in an exilic chorus supporting the end to the embargo. I see no sign that we are willing, as a community to come to terms with our Big Lie. To recognize that the embargo, as a policy to motivate change in Cuba, has been a resounding failure and has not met the expectations of its supporters. It is a zombie policy which should have been killed by years of evidence verifying its failure but stays alive, eating the brains of Cuban Americans. Supporting the embargo is evidence that our community has been successfully recruited to brutalize the Cuban people by assisting the U.S. in its feeble attempt to project American power. I worry about the history we are helping to shape.
The only hope that I hold for seeing the lifting of the embargo in my lifetime is for the U.S. government to act in its best interest. In this unique case, the best interests of the United States are aligned with the best interests of Cuba, its people and government.
Accepting this might not be easy for those who have developed an identity based on opposition to the Cuban government, but it is the reality we face. Let’s give in to a moment of clarity. We cannot, with any credibility, demand changes in others when we, as a community, remain so unwilling, or unable, to change.
But, I could be wrong. What do I know?