Guest Post by British Ambassador to Cuba Dianna Melrose: A View from Havana

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This is a guest note by British Ambassador to Cuba Dianna Melrose.
Contrary to what has been suggested on the Capitol Hill Cubans website, I couldn’t agree more with Senator Richard Lugar and Representative Howard Berman’s recent assessment that “over the last five decades, it has become clear that isolation will not induce the Castro regime to take steps towards political liberalization.” (Miami Herald, Lift the ban, let Americans visit Cuba).
Several excellent reports issued this spring by Senator Lugar, the Lexington Institute, Brookings and others, together with diplomats in Havana agree on this point: attempts to politically isolate Cuba and the economic embargo have not served US strategic interests. They have harmed ordinary people on the island. As dissidents argue, they have given the Cuban government a convenient scapegoat for all the hardships inflicted on their people by tight state control and lack of economic freedoms. Moreover, it is much easier to maintain political legitimacy whilst suppressing fundamental human rights and freedoms, if people on the island are made to feel that their country is under attack.
The Obama administration has already made a positive move in lifting the restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans. This has been widely welcomed on the island, especially amongst divided families. Members of Cuban civil society and dissidents on the island, with whom we are in regular contact, are hoping for more, most immediately Congress lifting of the broader ban on Americans traveling to Cuba.
Opponents of freeing up travel to Cuba for all US citizens argue that an influx of US tourists would benefit the government, not the people, given heavy state control of the economy. But former political prisoners, like the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Miriam Leiva, the blogger Yoani Sánchez (who recently hit the headlines when she received a letter from President Obama) and many others disagree. They argue that the arrival of thousands of US citizens would put pressure on the government to allow more free enterprise (more family businesses offering rooms to rent, more privately owned “paladar” restaurants and more taxi licences). The government would have to import more food for the tourism sector, potentially creating new markets for US suppliers. Critics of the government here see it as deeply ironic that, whereas US citizens are unable to visit Cuba without special licences, the US is now Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner (primarily because of some $1 billion food imports last year).
People here want change, but they also fear the unknown and what they might lose. Because the vast majority are unable to leave the island, they are also starved of international contacts. If they were able to talk to US citizens, with whom they share so many sporting, cultural and historical links, they could benefit from learning about the civil liberties and economic freedoms which US citizens enjoy. This contact would also help debunk the daily fare of anti-US propaganda they have grown up with in the state-run media.
I witnessed first hand the excitement and joy of hundreds of thousands of mainly young Cubans who crowded into the Plaza de la Revolución for the Juanes concert in September, with its messages of peace and reconciliation and the need for change. Following a very successful tour by our Royal Ballet in the summer, many Cuban friends expressed their deep disappointment that US travel restrictions meant the visit of the New York Philharmonic planned for this autumn was cancelled.
The UK has full diplomatic and trading relations with Cuba and is the second largest source of tourists here after Canada. Changes in US policy towards engagement and dismantling the embargo (including the extraterritorial provisions of Helms-Burton) would be popular with US allies, like the UK, and enable a more joined up multilateral approach to encouraging peaceful democratic change. Together with our EU partners, and the wider international community in Havana, we have decided that isolation is not an effective policy with which to help improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.
We have no illusions that democratic reforms and economic freedoms will happen overnight. This takes us into the difficult terrain of the extent to which moves by the US and others should be conditioned on human rights improvements. I have put this to critics of the government here. Their view was that the US should not condition every move on specific action by the Cuban government because, as they see it, leaving the ball in the Cuban government’s court risks the status quo continuing. The main losers would be some 11 million ordinary people on the island.
– Ambassador Dianna Melrose

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