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, agricultural questioning, 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. Some 60 years ago the United States slapped a near-complete economic embargo on Cuba, a Cold War spasm that lives on long after the struggle it may have served ended. 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.
“Sit down, have something to drink, rum for my friend. You’re American, I must ask you a question,” began a dozen encounters with Cubans from different walks of life. 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.
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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. The embargo preserved those wonderful classic American cars you see in any documentary about Cuba, frozen in time as few new vehicles can be imported. The Russians for a time slid into place as Cuba’s economic godfather, followed by the Special Period, those years of particularly acute suffering after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 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.” We clinked glasses. Forget your mojitos; rum this good is drunk neat. Sitting there, at least that seemed simple enough.
I tried in every rum-fueled encounter to explain why the United States might want to keep the embargo in place. 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?
Well, I tried to explain as the rum warmed me a bit too much, since Cuba is a socialist economy, lifting the embargo will benefit the government, which owns everything. My older Cuban drinking pals wondered if I was drunk enough to believe Cuba was still smitten with the revolutionary hallucinations of the 1960s. The Cuban economy of 2017 was an inverted pyramid, with some already rich off the proceeds from small independently owned restaurants, and taxi drivers making dozens of times what doctors do.
The new one percent of Cuba, I was told, were those who had figured out how to get their homes on AirBnB to rent out to foreigners. Meanwhile, through some modern day Silk Road, luxury goods reach the wealthy while store shelves in the neighborhoods are poorly stocked with basics. As one person put it, for decades America has made life harder on eleven million people to try and influence two, Fidel and his brother. End the embargo, Cubans said, let us grow, and we’ll sort out the government ourselves.
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.
Peter Van Buren is the author of “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” The views presented here are the author’s own and do not represent those of his former employer, the Department of State. @WeMeantWell