March 16, 2000

Punishment Politics: Tug of War Over Cuban-Boy Refugee Is Symbolic of U.S.-Cuba Embargo Problems

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Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old Cuban boy, was found floating on an inner tube off the coast of Florida on Nov. 25, 1999, his mother and 10 others from Cuba having perished in a boat accident. Elian was rescued and is staying in Florida with relatives of his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a hotel doorman in Cuba. Elian’s father has demanded the return of his boy to Cuba. The case has become a cause celebre in Cuba, where hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand Elian’s return to his homeland. In the United States, Elian is the political flash point for an illegal and inhumane U.S. policy toward Cuba.

U.S. politicians who seek to prevent Elian from returning to Cuba point to the large numbers who have fled Cuba in recent years, many risking and some losing their lives in unseaworthy crafts to reach the shores of Florida. The desperate economic conditions in Cuba are a direct outgrowth of U.S. policy toward Cuba, which in turn mirrors the strength of the Cuban-American voting lobby. Because it is a potent political force in U.S. electoral politics, Congress and all presidents since 1959 (the year of Fidel Castro’s Marxist revolution) have been loathe to cross the Cuban-American lobby.

The Cubans who left Cuba after the revolution have wielded a powerful sword on the U.S. political scene. L.D. Mallory, a state department senior official, wrote in a 1960 memorandum that, “the majority of Cubans support Castro,” and “there is no effective political opposition.” Thus, he maintained, “the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” He stressed that “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba,” and he proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.”

Later that year, the Eisenhower Administration declared a partial embargo on trade with Cuba in an attempt to pressure Cuba to change its form of government. Vice President Richard Nixon described this policy as an “all-out ‘quarantine’ – economically, politically and diplomatically – of the Castro regime.” The Kennedy Administration in 1962 announced a total embargo of trade with Cuba.

Successive administrations have maintained this embargo, and the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 was the first Congressional legislation to expand the scope of the embargo. It strengthened further in 1996 with the adoption of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act, which empowers the U.S. government to cancel foreign aid to nations that grant preferential treatment to Cuba.

According to Richard Garfield, of the Columbia University School of Nursing in New York, the U.S. government used “Mafia-type pressure tactics” to dissuade foreign sales to Cuba of ingredients for making soap and detergents. An amendment to the act that would have carved out an exception to the embargo for the sale of medicine and food to Cuba lost in the House of Representatives. In the past seven years, the United States has extended the reach of the embargo by attempting to force foreign countries and corporations to participate in the economic blockade of Cuba.

The United States embargo – or economic blockade – of Cuba has had disastrous effects on the Cuban people. Its restriction on the sale of food, medicine and medical equipment is unprecedented. Even the U.N. sanctions against Iraq do not ban the sale of food or medicine, because, as stated in a 1991 article in the New York Times, it is internationally “unacceptable to cause the wide-spread suffering among civilians through impeding the shipment of foods and medicines” to a civilian population.

In 1997, after conducting a 12 month investigation into the Cuban health system, the American Association for World Health found the U.S. embargo “has caused a significant rise in suffering – and even deaths – in Cuba.” The AAWH report also states that, since the enactment of the Cuban Democracy Act, Cuban “patients going without essential drugs or doctors performing medical procedures without adequate equipment . . . has sharply accelerated.” According to the AAWH, Cuba has access to less than half the new medicines on the world market, and it cannot buy some life-saving medical supplies anywhere. Fatal heart attacks in Cuba have increased because the U.S. pacemaker monopoly will not sell to Cuba. New anti-cancer and AIDS drugs are not accessible to Cubans. The CDA’s prohibition on the sale of food, fertilizer, pesticide and animal feed to Cuba has resulted in a 33 percent drop in caloric intake. The AAWH also found that food shortages have caused low birth weight in babies and a significant increase in nervous disorders.

The economic blockade against Cuba is a crime against humanity, defined by the Nuremberg Principles as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds . . .” For 39 years, the U.S. government has punished the Cuban people because it dislikes their political system.

In 1948, the United Nations passed the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. The United States and Cuba signed and ratified it, and it took effect in 1950. The Convention guaranteed “the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores . . . intended only for civilians . . .” and “. . . essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under 15, expectant mothers and maternity cases.” A blockade on food, medicines and other objects indispensable to survival is not permitted even in times of war.

The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly has condemned the embargo annually for the last eight years. This year, only the United States and Israel voted against the U.N. resolution. Ill. Gov. George Ryan, whose delegation visited Havana in October, recently urged an end to the economic embargo against Cuba. He observed that it “has been largely driven by political strength of the Cuban exile community in South Florida.” Ryan’s report states, “Clearly the 40-year-old U.S. policy of embargo and isolation against Cuba has not succeeded in driving Castro from power, and it is unlikely to ever be successful.”

Meanwhile, the embargo continues to take its toll on the people of Cuba. In addition, the U.S. government broadcasts anti-Cuba and pro-U.S. propaganda to Cuba on Radio Marti. As a result, many Cubans have left, crossing the Florida Strait in unsafe boats. In 1994, the United States and Cuba issued a Joint Communique, providing that “migrants rescued at sea attempting to enter the United States will not be permitted to enter the United States.” Cuba pledged to try to prevent unsafe departures using mainly persuasive methods. A joint statement between the United States and Cuba in 1995 stated that “Cuban migrants intercepted at sea by the United States and attempting to enter the United States will be taken to Cuba.” The “wet feet-dry feet” policy, however, allows only Cubans caught on U.S. shores to become permanent U.S. residents and legal workers. Those intercepted at sea go back.

Although rescued at sea, Elian Gonzalez has not gone back to Cuba. Immigration and Naturalization Service Director Doris Meissner acknowledges that “U.S. law, and I think Cuban law, says a parent [Elian’s father in Cuba] has the primary custody right. But we will create an opportunity for those who have an interest in the boy’s well-being to be heard,” Lawyers for Elian’s Cuban-American relatives have filed a political asylum claim on his behalf. They claim Elian has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in Cuba if he returns, which can depend on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Judging from the Cuban outpouring of support for Elian, no one seems to have a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The frivolous asylum claim made by Elian’s American relatives has served to focus attention on the economic deprivation in Cuba, which caused his mother to flee with him and others in an unseaworthy craft. The U.S. economic blockade of Cuba has led to the tragic conditions in Cuba. The blockade must end at once. Elian Gonzalez must go back to his homeland.