The Damaging “Middle Ground” Stance on Cuba - Mikael Wolfe

A school bus painted with a message protesting the U.S. embargo of Cuba. (Velvet, Wikimedia Commons)

Since the mass protests erupted on July 11 in Cuba (J-11), many “middle ground” U.S.-based Cuba experts have written or spoken about the situation in social media, online journals, and news outlets. While diverse in their viewpoints, they generally acknowledge that U.S. policy is at least partially responsible for Cuba’s current economic and political crisis which has been severely aggravated by Covid-19. Yet these experts have chosen to minimize the role of the United States and to instead center the Cuban people’s struggle against an authoritarian regime. This reaction is understandable, particularly for those, like myself, with family, friends or colleagues in Cuba. Unfortunately, however, this approach ignores the fact that the United States is a global hegemonic superpower. Narrowly focusing on Cuba and downplaying the role of the United States reinforces the U.S. government and corporate media’s inaccurate claim that the Cuban government is unique in its “misbehavior” and therefore deserves to be punished. Thus, this middle ground approach unintentionally legitimizes a policy that, by posing an existential threat to the Cuban government, exacerbates the Cuban peoples’ suffering and further constrains their agency to determine their own fate.

The U.S. embargo’s devastating impact on the Cuban economy is an undeniable reality. Nearly all Latin American countries depend to varying degrees on the United States for trade, services, investment, and foreign assistance. Even in Mexico, Latin America’s second largest economy, leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) buckled under Trump’s repeated threats to close the border to trade if Mexico didn’t detain United States-bound Central American asylum seekers. AMLO feared the economic repercussions of a U.S. action that, had Trump imposed it, would not have impacted Mexicans as severely as the U.S. embargo impacts Cubans. Compared to Cuba, Mexico’s annual GDP in 2020 was ten times larger, far more diversified, and far more integrated in the global economy. If what Mexico dodged was Trump’s .357 magnum bullet, Cuba has had a bipartisan U.S. bazooka rocket permanently lodged within its body politic for six decades. As such, it is impossible to disentangle the embargo from the Cuban government’s actions and popular reactions to them. Instead, it is more accurate to see these internal and external factors working together synergistically, if asymmetrically. For privileged U.S.-based Cuba experts able to freely speak our minds and wishing—as we all do—to ease the suffering caused by this reinforcing feedback loop, we should abandon any pretense of a middle ground. Rather than trying to influence the Cuban government, we will have a greater impact if we focus instead on changing U.S. policy.

For Noam Chomsky, critiquing U.S. foreign policy rather than the far weaker governments that it targets is an ethical stance that he sums up by saying, “you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions.” The U.S. government and corporate media apply this stance in the case of perceived enemies or rivals, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Russia, and China. With the United States and its allies, that approach is applied inconsistently, if at all. Protesters in an enemy or rival country, like those in Cuba in recent months, are invariably praised as courageous because they risk their lives and livelihoods against what the U.S. sees as a repressive government.

President Biden’s statement in response to the J-11 protests in Cuba did not mention the embargo at all, absolving the United States of any responsibility or involvement and blaming the Cuban government.