THE TICKING EMBARGO

Havana

By Alejandro Inzunza
Staff Writer

On Dec. 17 last year, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a historic shift in relations between the United States and Cuba. After extensive negotiations brokered by the Canadian government and authorities in Vatican City, the presidents revealed that the U.S. and Cuba had agreed to normalize relations and would begin implementing policies to fully restore diplomatic channels in the coming months.

The talks commenced with a prisoner swap that included spies from both nations and the release of Alan Gross, an American subcontractor who had been imprisoned in the island since 2009. The swap has since been followed by negotiations pertaining to the normalization process which will include the establishment of an American embassy in Havana, a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, easing travel restrictions to the island, and raising limits on remittances by Cuban-Americans and their businesses. In exchange, the Cuban regime has released 53 political prisoners and pledged to improve access to the Internet and other telecommunications technology.

Although initial rapprochement efforts have encountered diplomatic difficulties and domestic criticism, they are widely expected to be resolved in time for the 2015 Summit of the Americas to be held in Panama City this month. Cuba will attend the summit for the first time in history after a vote by Latin American countries resulted in unanimous support for the island-nation’s participation. The United States has consistently opposed Cuba’s attendance and actively lobbied members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to refrain from inviting Cuba in the past. This year’s summit will mark the first time both countries will share the hemispheric stage and will present an important opportunity for both nations to showcase diplomatic progress and update their bilateral relations. The American stance on Cuba has long been a source of tension and disagreement between the U.S. and countries in Latin America and has gradually eroded American influence in the region. The recent rapprochement developments provide an opportunity to improve ties with these nations and rethink American policy towards them as well. Furthermore, the 2015 Summit sets an appropriate stage for negotiations to begin on the biggest issue in U.S.-Cuban relations: the Cuban embargo.

In place since the early 1960s, the Cuban embargo is the longest-lasting trade embargo in the modern era. It was enacted with the purpose of ousting the Castro regime and outlaws most bilateral interaction between the United States and Cuba. It is outside the reach of presidential executive orders and requires Congressional action to be lifted or modified. Although the embargo has endured more than five decades thanks to its support by a powerful political machine, the social and demographic forces that have kept it in place are steadily eroding.

Most of the support for the embargo stems from older cohorts of voters and first-generation Cubans who immigrated to the United States after the Cuban Revolution, mostly to Florida. As these voter blocks start to dwindle and their political power begins to fade, politicians will have decreasing incentives to vociferously defend the continuation of the embargo and explore the alternatives. Already, a majority of Americans favor restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and are becoming increasingly supportive of lifting the embargo. The trend is even stronger among younger Cuban-Americans in Florida, the state whose representatives have been the most ardent supporters of the status quo. The bloc of Cuban hardliners still represents an influential force in state and nationwide politics, albeit less so today than during any period in contemporary political history.

Arguments in favor of lifting the embargo have been widely discussed and detractors are increasingly falling flat. After all, it is hard to argue that a policy that has been in place for more than fifty years will only now begin to produce the intended beneficial outcomes. If anything, the embargo presents the perfect excuse to stir anti-Americanism in the region and excuse poverty and inequality in Cuba as a product of Yanqui oppression. The American tourism and business dollars that critics fear will flood Cuba and further empower the Castro regime are more likely to reveal the totalitarian corruption that actually oppresses the Cuban people. Poverty and struggle will be harder to justify once limits on trade and finance are lifted and will only serve to pressure failed economic policies to change.

In its quest to isolate Cuba, the United States has been slowly isolating itself instead. It remains the only major country without relations to Cuba and the only advocate for a policy that belongs in the years of the Cold War. It is time to pursue engagement and disavow isolationist policies that have led nowhere. The Cuban embargo is counterproductive and ultimately undermines American influence and interests in the immediate region.

Regardless of the merits or drawbacks of the embargo, the steady shift in American public opinion is undeniable and will inevitably alter the political landscape in time. Although a complete reversal of the embargo in the near future is unlikely given the current Republican control over both houses of Congress, prominent political figures are publicly advocating its end. The debate might set the stage for 2016, when the U.S. Senate is likely to change hands again. In the end, the Cuban question reflects an outdated policy whose revisiting was inevitable given enough time. Barring an international crisis, demographic trends favor a Cuban détente. Unless the Castro regime purposefully sabotages efforts to restore diplomatic relations, the end of the embargo is likely to happen in the coming years.

Image by Alejandro Inzunza

WINTER OF DISCONTENT, PART I: THE PRESENT PREDICAMENT IN UKRAINE, VENEZUELA AND THAILAND

Graffiti in Boston

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

For the past few weeks, I have been receiving notifications on my iPhone lock screen about the current state of Ukraine through news applications such as the New York Times and Circa. However, I have not received any about the situations in Thailand and Venezuela, even though these conflicts have been going on for as long as or even longer, in the case of Thailand, than the Ukrainian crisis. Why is it that the United States and Western media are making headlines of the news in Ukraine when there are other global conflicts that are just as important as what is happening in Ukraine, if not more? I believe that the only reason the United States and Western media are so fixated on the Ukrainian situation is that it is simply easier for the media to cover and increase readership. In addition to this, the U.S. media and government officials are stuck in a Cold War mentality.

In Ukraine, tensions began to rise when President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance came into conflict with the pro-EU stance of the nation’s youth opposition. President Yanukovych suspended talks on an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union in which the European Union would help support the Ukrainian economy. Russia made its position clear on the agreement by changing its foreign policy to prevent the import of all goods from Ukraine. However, after the Ukraine-EU agreement broke down, Russia indicated that it would be willing to provide Ukraine with a $15 billion bailout loan, which President Yanukovych accepted. This infuriated Ukrainians who wanted to establish closer ties with the European Union and to distance themselves from Russia. In response, three months of protests, dubbed Euromaidan, began in November 2013, culminating thus far in a temporary truce that broke down less than a day after it was called between President Yanukovych and opposition leaders, the deaths of both protestors and police, the flight of President Yanukovych to Russia and his subsequent impeachment, the call for an early presidential election that will take place on May 25, 2014, and, most importantly, the beginning of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently received permission from the Russian parliament to deploy Russian troops in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

In Venezuela, protests have arisen due to President Nicolás Maduro’s inability to unite the country and stabilize the Venezuelan economy following the death of President Hugo Chávez almost one year ago today. According to CTV News, a myriad of reasons contribute to the growing displeasure with President Maduro’s regime, including surging inflation, scarcity of basic goods, problematic gas prices, high levels of criminal violence and persistent uncertainty about the validity of election results that put President Maduro in power in the first place. Although the first three reasons have important underlying economic implications, it is actually the fourth reason that has led most strongly to widespread student protests. On January 6, 2014, Miss Venezuela Monica Spear, her husband and her daughter were returning by car to Caracas after a New Year’s vacation when they were assaulted by highway robbers. Spear and her husband were killed, while their daughter was left wounded and orphaned. After this incident, protests began against the President Maduro’s regime, fueled by outrage over economic instability and overall insecurity. These mainly student-led protests only increased in force in February, especially because they coincided with the February 12th commemoration of the role of young people in a historical battle and because of the escalation of violence from both the government and protestors. The protestors’ main goal is the resignation of President Maduro, but he has yet to step down at this point.

In Thailand, protestors began decrying the unstable government under current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in late October 2013. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from office and has been in a self-imposed exile in Dubai and London since 2006. Many of the protestors see Yingluck as a puppet for her brother Thaksin, and this became even more apparent when Prime Minister Yingluck introduced an amnesty bill that would nullify Thaksin’s corruption allegations and allow him to return to the country without punishment. The public outcry against this bill led to protests in Bangkok, and the Thai Senate eventually rejected the bill in November 2013. However, the lasting backlash to the proposed bill caused Yingluck to dissolve the nation’s parliament on December 9, 2013, and call for new elections to be held February 2, 2014. Protests against Yingluck’s government are made up largely of younger educated urban middle-class citizens, who widely refused to vote in the February election because they did not believe the elections were free and fair. These demonstrators want every trace of “Thaksin’s regime […] wiped out” from their country and will not stop until an “unelected council is put in place to reform what they say is a corrupt political system.” In the aftermath of the February 2nd election, police have attempted to evict around 6,000 demonstrators from government sites, which has led to ongoing violence and contention between the protestors and police.

All three of these global conflicts are ongoing and all are important to the global economy and world affairs in distinct ways, yet the most attention has been paid to the Ukrainian crisis. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations has a Global Conflict Tracker that does not, at the time of publication of this article, consider the Ukraine conflict to be as high on their Preventive Priority Level scale as the conflicts in Venezuela and Thailand. Although it may be easier for the media to cover the Ukrainian conflict due to pre-existing negative sentiments towards Russia lasting from the Cold War era, it is wrong for the media to mainly focus on the Ukrainian crisis just because images of Russian imperialism may be more salient to news readers. The media’s job is to inform, and, when it chooses to do so, it can do an exemplary job, as we are now seeing in Ukraine. However, more should be done to cover the ongoing crises of Venezuela, Thailand and other ongoing global conflicts currently under the media’s radar. In the next part of this series, I will examine the implications each of these protests has on U.S. interests and explore why the failure of the media to cover them is so problematic.

Image by Brian Talbot