Cuba, 2024

10 min readApr 1, 2024

I traveled to Cuba for the first time last month. I had been invited to speak at a conference, and I met with a wide range of Cubans, from law professors to government officials to students in three different universities.

It was a profoundly saddening trip. Not because of the Cubans or Cuba, directly: There is a beauty and life to the people and place; the music and dance were extraordinary; everyone smiled, all the time (and no, I’m not that funny-looking); the restored American cars from the 1950s were a blast.

I had been obsessed with communist countries as a kid. In 1982, I hitchhiked throughout Eastern Europe and traveled into the Soviet Union (no hitchhiking allowed there). There were strange echoes of that world in the Cuba of today — a Karl Marx Theater, quotes from Castro everywhere, meetings with Party Secretaries present, and a constant reference to the revolution. But the Communist bloc of the 1980s was gray and depressed; Cuba was anything but gray and the people had a joy and determination.

And they have made extraordinary accomplishments. Cut off from America during COVID, Cuba developed its own highly effective vaccine based on more traditional vaccine technology. Think about that: Singapore, or South Korea didn’t develop a vaccine. And the United States certainly didn’t control the spread of COVID as effectively as Cuba did (per capita deaths in the US are 4.4x those in Cuba). The nation is filled with pride about what it has accomplished, given the extraordinary burden it bears.

That burden, of course, is from us. For 64 years now, except for a brief time during the Obama administration, the United States has imposed an effective blockade against Cuba. That blockade makes practically all economic activity with the United States impossibly difficult. It makes travel between the two countries — except for twelve categories of travelers — illegal. It forbids Americans from staying in all but two hotels in Havana (so much freedom!). Even Europeans traveling to Cuba will be denied ESTA visa waivers if they later travel to the United States. The blockade has been insanely burdensome to the Cuban people. During COVID, even the Biden administration blocked the import of parts to enable the repair of a local oxygen factory. What’s the suffocation of a few more sick people when there’s an existential fight against communism to be waged?

This blockade then was the source of my sadness. Not because I’m against all blockades. To remix Obama a bit: I’m against dumb blockades. I’m against blockades that have nothing to do with American interests. Because obviously, the vast majority of Americans have no clue that we are imposing this burden on Cuba. And if they understood the facts, I am certain that the vast majority would oppose our efforts to crush this proud but still developing nation just 90 miles from our shores. Yet as if on auto-pilot, our monstrous policy continues. And to understand why is to understand so much that’s wrong with American democracy today.

America’s first great betrayal of Cuba happened in 1898. Yet, from the perspective of democracy, that betrayal was more justified than what we do today.

The people of Cuba had been waging a 30-year war to liberate themselves from the Spanish empire. In 1898, we joined that fight, helping Cuba free itself from Spain. At the moment of liberation, there was, for a very brief time (literally a weekend), an expectation among most Cubans that the United States would then permit Cuba to be its own nation, just as France had done with America after our own Revolution. But the forces favoring empire in the United States quickly dashed those hopes. The US forbade Cuba from even attending the signing of the treaty that ended its rule by Spain. William McKinley quickly asserted that the United States now effectively owned Cuba.

This was a betrayal. Yet it was a betrayal that would eventually have the will of the American people behind it. As Stephen Kinzer describes in his book True Flag, at the end of the 19th Century, the United States launched itself upon an extraordinary debate about whether it, too, would become an empire. Many argued vigorously against empire — including Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and William Jennings Bryan. These Americans insisted that the very idea of America rejected the notion of colonizing or oppressing foreign peoples. (Native Americans were no doubt puzzled that serious people could actually hold that view about America’s past.) Carnegie even offered to fund Bryan’s campaign in 1900 if he would give up his anti-gold fight and focus exclusively on the fight against empire. Tragically, for humanity, Byran refused.

Other prominent Americans—Teddy Roosevelt and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge most famously—argued the opposite. To be a grown-up nation, these pols insisted, required taking and holding colonies. Germany did it, England did it, Spain did it, and France and Belgium did it. So too should we, these builders of empire insisted.

And so we did. Bryan lost in 1900; empire won. With that election, the United States confirmed a tragic and bloody 30-year mission to capture and hold peoples across the globe, including Cuba (in a modified form), Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, and many other small islands across the Pacific.

This was a terrible decision by the United States. But it was a decision made with the support of the people. Likewise, with the resistance to the revolution launched by Fidel Castro in 1959 at the height of the Cold War. Here too, whether rightly or not, America feared the growing alliance between the Soviet Union and Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis reinforced that fear and the resolve to isolate and punish Cuba.

Yet by the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was dead; there was no Cold War to continue; for a flicker of a moment, President Bush wondered whether the blockade should be lifted. The politics in Florida, however, drove him to support the Cuba Democracy Act, which codified the embargo. Congress and President Clinton then upped the ante passing the Helms-Burton Act, which further strengthened the blockade and set the conditions under which it could be lifted.

But then, in the last two years of his administration, Barack Obama began a process of normalization. When he did, almost 2/3ds of Americans supported ending the embargo with Cuba. A similar number of Cubans in Florida agreed. Finally, a blockade older than Obama was coming to an end.

Trump changed all that. As a gift to Marco Rubio, Trump reversed Obama’s Cuba policy. Then reportedly, at the request of Florida Democrats, hopeful they might recruit Cubans in Florida to the Democratic Party, Biden has essentially continued Trump’s policy (with slight modifications to support family reunification).

Which means that here we are, 64 years after the Revolution, and almost 35 years after the end of the Cold War, enforcing the longest-running blockade against any nation by any nation in world history, with most Americans oblivious to the fact or the reasons for such a blockade — just so Democrats in Florida might get one more congressional seat.

The most puzzling aspect of this story to me, however, is that the Cubans in Florida don’t support the Cuban people.

Sixty-five years ago, that wouldn’t have been surprising: many who fled Cuba had had their property nationalized by the Cuban Revolution. They, and the American companies that had suffered from the Revolution, understandably desperately wanted Castro ousted. But 80% of Cubans in Florida weren’t even 10 when the Revolution happened. So what explains their continued support for policies that only hurt the Cuban people? Could you imagine Irish Americans seeking to punish the people of Ireland? Or Jewish Americans seeking to punish Israel?

The attitudes of Cubans in America are well studied by the Florida International University Cuban Research Institute. Their latest poll (from 2022) found 67% of Florida Cubans had close relatives or significant others living in Cuba. More than 2/3ds believe the embargo has not worked well. Yet bizarrely, almost 2/3ds favor continuing the embargo, twice the number that supported the embargo after Obama had begun normalization. Just over 1/2 of Florida Cubans now believe Cuba presents a “threat to vital American interests.” What that “threat” is is unclear. Almost 3/4ths of Florida Cubans support “maximum pressure” to “promote regime change.” (Cue Rita Mae Brown: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”)

Why they believe these things, however, is harder to understand. Castro is long gone. Most of the people who lost property are also long gone. Cuba is not threatening to invade the United States. It does not host missiles aimed at the United States. Cuba has no meaningful alliance with Russia or North Korea (though China, wisely, is building strong connections with the country). No one can really believe that the people are going to rise up and overthrow their government. No one could honestly believe that is what most Cubans even want. For 64 years, any suffering that Cubans have had has been directly linked to the sanctions America has imposed upon them. Obama thought lifting those sanctions would then give Cubans the perspective to recognize that they needed to reform their government. Maybe. But without lifting those sanctions, any blame for any difficulty in Cuba rests solely upon the United States. We are the Cuban government’s easiest scapegoat.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I know enough to judge or evaluate the Cuban state or its policies toward its people. The US says they’re oppressed. I saw poverty, to be sure (though nothing to compare to the huge swaths of hopelessness that cut across American cities); I’m sure there are police, and maybe they’re oppressive (though I didn’t see one anywhere on my trip, and certainly none carrying machine guns as the National Guard does in the New York subway). My point is not that Cuba is a perfect society. It is the smaller but more important point for an American to insist upon: whatever their government, who the hell are we to starve them with sanctions or to deny them oxygen during a pandemic so as to effect “regime change”? Have we really — 125 years after the launch of Empire America—not learned anything?

Yet if we dig a bit deeper, there may be a way to understand the economy of influence that pushes Cubans in America to punish Cubans in Cuba. Because it turns out that our government gives tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to Cubans in Florida to spread the anti-Cuban message. These contracts are extremely lucrative: This year’s budget promises $25 million (a 25% increase) to “promote democracy” in Cuba, which means millions to run websites or Twitter feeds meant to rile up native Cubans and drive hatred toward the Cuban government. We spend another $25 million on radio and TV broadcasts targeting Cuba. Normalization would obviously starve the beneficiaries of this propaganda welfare. So Cubans in Florida feeding at this trough are keen to avoid that subsidy disappearing. It’s good money in exchange for very little work. Who wouldn’t fight to keep it?

And so they—the leadership in the Cuban community of Florida — resist normalization. That resistance, in turn, blocks both Republicans and Democrats from supporting normalization. And thus, a blockade that doesn’t benefit America — indeed, that harms the American economy—that does great harm to Cubans in Cuba, and is most likely in violation of international law, is fueled by a government-funded propaganda program that makes anti-Cuban Cubans in Florida richer than they otherwise would be.

No one not on this propaganda-gravy train should support this policy. At the very least, no one should support the United States subsidizing anti-Cuban rhetoric. Instead, let’s take $1 million of the $25 million to be given to the Cuba haters in Florida this year and give it to James Fishkin at Stanford to run a national deliberative poll about America’s attitudes toward Cuba. That poll could give the participants the information they need to understand the history and any current threats. Participants could then deliberate and determine whether they support the continued punishment of the people of a nation for the crimes of their great-grandfathers.

I’d be willing to commit to whatever policy that poll supported. Because I am certain that there is no way that ordinary Americans — not sucking from the State Department’s propaganda teet — would support the inhumane, unjustified, and likely illegal blockade that the United States imposes on Cuba. We are better than this. And even if we haven’t been in the past, we must be better than this from this day forward.

There is one image of Eastern Europe during the Soviet Era that will forever capture my sense of that place. I was on a bus, crossing from Romania into Bulgaria. The line was endless. It took hours to make the crossing. But the line moved slowly and deliberately as the border guards inspected and cleared the crossings.

I was sitting in the front row of the bus. About six cars ahead was a farm truck carrying geese. The truck hit a bump, the back opened up, and about twenty geese fell from the truck onto the road. It was mayhem — for the geese, at least. No one else seemed to notice. The line continued to move, slowly, and now slowly crushing the geese as it moved. Eventually, the farm truck pulled to the side; the driver got out and closed the gate, got back into his truck, and left the dead geese littering the road.

This was the oblivious oppression of communism in 1980s Eastern Europe. It was a rhythm that felt foreign to me. No doubt, I was naive then, both about them and us. But oblivious oppression no longer feels foreign. It just saddens me, as it should you.