Misguided attempt to cross the Florida Straits

Published 10:23 am Wednesday, March 23, 2016

This week, Barack Obama became the first United States President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. His visit is being celebrated as historic; a chance to normalize the tumultuous relationship between the two countries that were once on the verge of nuclear war.

But what is lost in all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the visit, which includes a baseball exhibition between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team that was broadcast nationally by ESPN — only the second such game played in the country in my lifetime — are the reasons that the decades-old trade embargo was enacted in the first place.

For those unaware, the United States severed diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro overthrew president Fulgencio Batista in 1958. Castro’s regime increased trade with the Soviet Union, nationalized property owned by the United States and hiked taxes on American imports, among other things. After the United States botched an invasion to assassinate Castro in 1961, he allowed the Soviet Union to build a missile base on the island — 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

While the 14-day Cold War standoff eventually ended with an agreement that the site would be dismantled if the United States pledged not to invade its neighbor to the south, tensions remain high to this day.

When Air Force One landed in the capital city of Havana on Sunday, images depicting some sort of time warp went viral. Crumbled buildings, decrepit roadways and vintage American-made cars all speak to the dire state of disrepair caused by the half-century of communist rule and the imposed embargo.

By stepping off of that plane and shaking the hand of the Cuban President Raul Castro, who took office when his ailing older brother retired in 2008, Obama has downplayed why Cuba looks the way it does.

His attempts to reestablish relations between the two countries ignores the Castro regime’s stance on human rights, seemingly violating the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which states that the aforementioned embargo “may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and transitions to a democratic government that excludes the Castros.”

It will remain to be seen what the visit will mean in the long term. It could spark a new relationship between the countries, with the potential for improved human rights on the island nation.

But until elections are held void of Castro’s influence and a free press is established or until citizens are no longer arbitrarily jailed or killed for religious expression or for assembling in large groups, the Cuban people will continue to get on makeshift rafts, leaving everything they know and the people they love in search of freedom and opportunity in America.

When those people are given the right to vote, a platform such as this to voice their opinions and the ability to immigrate to the United States — instead of being exiled — then the talks should resume.

Obama may have good intentions by attempting to normalizing relations with Cuba, but having a hot dog at a glorified spring training game is not the way to coerce a communist dictator into improving his [family’s] long-standing belief on human rights and the country’s economic state.

ANDREW LIND is the sports editor and staff writer at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187, andrew.lind@tidewaternews.com or at @AndrewMLind.