I never thought I'd mention Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and geopolitics in the same sentence. But the superstar couple is causing quite a stir by celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary in Havana, Cuba — a country that has been completely off-limits to American vacationers for more than fifty years due to that Cold War relic, the embargo.
Last week, Mauricio Claver-Carone, Director for the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, blasted the couple's trip as "insulting," saying they were “clueless about the tortures happening in Cuba." And Cuban American U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart have written a letter to the Department of Treasury requesting answers as to how the Carters' trip was authorized. But after spending the appropriate amount of time admiring Beyoncé’s outfit and Jay-Z’s ability to look cooly detached as he undoubtedly crafts a witty punchline in his head about private flights, Brooklyn mornings and Havana nights, all I wondered was why I too couldn’t stroll the streets of Havana as effortlessly as they are. Rather, why is the United States holding on to the embargo against Cuba, a policy that Secretary of State John Kerry said "has manifestly failed” for more than half a century?
The U.S. embargo was put in place by John F. Kennedy in 1962 following the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. It was reinforced in 1992 under President Bill Clinton to force Cuba to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights.” In the past five decades, however, the embargo has yet to be successful on that front, as Cuba is still a Communist country.
Granted, Castro’s human rights record is undeniably deplorable. Cuba has been known to jail political prisoners indefinitely, consolidate power in the hands of a few, and restrict freedom of speech and the press — but so has Egypt, Colombia, and Sudan. Those countries not only receive substantial amounts of aid from the U.S., but also have no congressionally mandated travel restrictions for Americans. Americans are even able to travel to countries with openly hostile and abusive governments like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and China without restrictions by the U.S. government.
Despite that, the lessons we’ve learned about conflict resolution between the end of the Cold War and North Korea posturing about nuclear war with Rick Ross-like conviction have yet to be applied to Cuba. These lessons are that: 1. Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. By its very nature, democracy has to be a grassroots movement; and 2. Isolating a country from the rest of the world–even when you abhor its policies–won’t necessarily force it to change.
To some extent, President Obama has recognized that a new policy based on reality is needed towards Cuba. He loosened restrictions on travel for Cuban Americans, journalists, select student and religious groups — and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. But that doesn’t go far enough. Research has shown that the embargo disproportionately punishes average Cubans, not their leadership. Not only that, but restricting travel and contact with people from the outside is counterproductive to the "democratization and greater respect for human rights” that Congress claims to want. In a 2009 op-ed to the Tampa Bay Times, then-Senator Kerry pointed out that, “Studies of change in Eastern and Central Europe find the more outside contact a country has, the more peaceful and durable its democratic transition.” Now, even Fidel's brother, President Raul Castro has taken note and eased restrictions on travel for Cubans.
During his 2009 speech about easing the restrictions on Cuban Americans, President Obama said, “There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans." But as Secretary Kerry pointed out back then, there are nearly 300 million other Americans who could also be goodwill ambassadors. Instead of maintaining the hubris that a Kennedy-era policy that didn’t work then will suddenly topple Communism now, it’s time for our policies towards Cuba to refocus on the Cuban people and the power of cultural exchange and globalization to bring about change. Congress should lift the travel restrictions on Cuba so that Americans can “travel first class to change the forecast,” as Jay would say. Otherwise, we should extend travel restrictions to every country with a spotty human rights record based on our supposed concern for democracy and human rights.
France François is the founder of the award-winning Black in Cairo blog. She has an M.A. in International Development and Conflict Resolution. Follow her on Twitter at @FranceF3.