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    Here’s what I think: The protests in Cuba

    In the last couple of weeks, large-scale protests have been taking place in Cuba. They were initially against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the dire economic consequences of it, but have now taken on a more general anti-government meaning. They began the Sunday before last in a suburb adjacent to the capital Havana, and rapidly spread to the rest of the country.

    Here's what I think: The protests in Cuba 1
    Tom Cleaver

    The last eighteen months have hit the people of Cuba hard. It has seen food shortages and ever-deepening poverty, exacerbated by sanctions imposed by the United States of America and the collapse of the tourism industry caused by the pandemic. The national economy shrank by 11% in 2020, and rising international food prices coupled with a devalued currency mean that people are seriously struggling to afford to put food on the table.

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    These problems have reached critical mass in 2021, with frustration finally boiling over and people taking to the streets. The protests were welcomed by much of the world, especially in the United States, for whom Cuba has long been a communist thorn in its capitalist side. President Joe Biden issued a statement endorsing the protests, and Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio urged him to “mobilize [sic] an international response”, stating that “if he doesn’t, we will see a bloodbath 90 miles off our shores”.

    What should America do, then? In my opinion, the first thing it needs to do is to review and reduce its sanctions against Cuba. This may seem a counter-intuitive thing to do against the dictatorship next door (and let’s be clear: Cuba is a dictatorship), but hear me out.

    When trying to exact positive change in an authoritarian country with a centralised power structure, embargoes and sanctions do not work. The leaders of those countries, almost by definition, have no moral qualm with passing the brunt of those sanctions onto their people while they continue to live in opulence. You can’t sanction a heavily-centralised dictatorship into submission, as is evidenced by the fact that the likes of Nicolas Maduro, Kim Jong-un, and of course the Cuban Communist Party (after sixty years) are still in power, because they simply do not care about their people.

    “Ostpolitik” succeeded in bringing down a dictatorship

    Sanctions and embargoes on governments like these serve only to further impoverish the people unfortunate enough to under them. There are occasions where these sanctions may push people beyond the limit of desperation, where they attempt themselves an overthrow of their own government (either violently or otherwise), but this surely can’t be the goal of sanctions, can it? If it is, that would make them particularly cruel in my book.

    If the United States of America is serious about creating a better and democratic future for the people of Cuba, it should look to history for its example, and in particular to former Chancellor of West Germany Willy Brandt. His strategy of “Ostpolitik”, of building relations with East Germany through rapprochement and building relationships and diplomatic ties. A thawing of relations was positive diplomatically for West Germany, which could use its leverage to free political prisoners in the East. Most importantly of all, it also succeeded in bringing down the dictatorship, in a much less bloody revolution than would otherwise have been possible.

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    The Obama administration had made steps towards a replication of “Ostpolitik”, when it reopened its embassy in Havana and allowed for travel between Cuba and the United States, but the Trump administration reversed these steps, implemented heavier sanctions, and even declared Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism. The current Biden administration is yet to reverse the measures taken by Donald Trump, which is disappointing, but one would hope Joe Biden would do the right thing here.

    It is time we learnt the right lessons from history in how to deal with dictatorships, as the world’s current strategy clearly isn’t working. The people of Cuba have become desperate thanks to their own authoritarian and careless government. There’s no need for the United States of America to make things worse, when it could easily make things better.

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