I intended to begin with the following declaration:
“We get the governments we deserve.”
But after thinking it over a bit more carefully I cannot say I am so sure. Or, one could very well substitute “government” for any other word—society, lover, family, friends, bosses, what have you. In any case, I will try to begin again, but ask that you keep the above speculation in mind as you read through the next 941 words.
Barack Obama has shown himself to be anything but a lame duck in these the final months of his presidency. In fact, the Obama of hope, of change, of spreading the wealth, the Obama I voted for, has finally emerged. Perhaps it’s because he has nothing now to lose, perhaps it’s because he feels that if he doesn’t act now there will be no hope in the future of engaging the challenging issues that the last nine presidents have not even bothered to consider.
Although I still think that U.S. foreign policy is outrageously imperialistic and destructive, (the United States still acts like the empire that it no longer is) I do praise the Obama administration’s decision to hold talks with Iran and engage Cuba after decades of embargoes. To be sure, the leaders of Iran and Cuba are tyrants who repress their peoples and commit heinous crimes against humanity. But, and this is my point, after decades of getting no where, especially with Cuba, perhaps it’s high time we begin talking to one another. Holding our ground has not worked, and embargoes have proven to hurt ordinary citizens most of all.
The U.S. embargo on Cuba officially began in 1952 and was instituted by President John F. Kennedy, thus marking over half a century of silence between the two nations. Fidel Castro is now 88 years of age and has outlasted nine U.S. Presidents, not including Barack Obama. As a result of the embargo Cuba seems to have become frozen in time. Pictures of Havana reveal a city still stuck in the 1950s. Cuba has shown itself to be resilient to the core. Although the tiny island is still a communist nation ruled under a dictatorship, 52 years of embargo has done nothing to persuade the people of Cuba to take up arms against the Castro brothers. At the time of this writing it is still incredibly difficult for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, even for humanitarian and scholarly purposes. When President Bill Clinton hosted one of his favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Martha’s Vineyard, Clinton bristled when Gabbo brought up U.S.—Cuba relations.
I understand the Iran embargo as being different. On February 1, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris to help usher in the Islamic revolution, thus establishing the world’s first Islamic state. The region was plunged into instability, and the U.S. backed Shaw, Reza Pahlavi, was forced to flee the country on a “permanent vacation.” President Carter agreed to allow the Shaw access to medical treatment for cancer in the United States, setting off a wave of unprecedented anti-American sentiment. On November 4, 1979 a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy taking over 60 American hostages. After a failed attempt at their rescue President Carter lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan. After 444 days as captives, the hostages were released just hours before the inauguration of President Reagan who gladly took the credit for their release. We would not find out until years later the costs of that that release.
That’s the Iranian story in a nutshell, and the reason we are to believe that the U.S. led embargo of Iran has been carried out for nearly 40 years. Of course there is much more to the story than that. For one thing, the Shaw of Iran was a U.S. backed leader who turned out to be a ruthless dictator causing an unprecedented gap between rich and poor in Iran. The CIA invasion of Iran in the 1950s was a covert operation meant to secure access to oil. Our interests in the region have always been about oil and less about democracy and freedom. Cold war politics informing U.S. foreign policy acted in exactly the same way it did in Latin America. That is, even ruthless dictators were better than communists. The policy of the containment of communism was enforced at all costs thus making the cold war the Third World War.
Most recently the Obama administration has taken Cuba off the list of nations that engage in state sponsored terrorism. I see this as a positive step forward in renewing and strengthening our stance in the region. If we want Cuba to clean up its human rights record then the best way to do that is to leverage our influence through dialogue. Let’s face it: decades of not talking and embargoes have not worked. Although the Iranian situation is more complicated, we should still pivot our stance in an attempt to sway the current regime on its ideological positions. I also find it ironic that U.S. foreign policy toward Iran is driven by our determination not to let Iran develop of nuclear bomb when the only nation in human history to use such weapons of mass destruction has been the United States. The best way to ensure that Iran does not obtain the capabilities of developing a nuclear weapon is to provide them with the economic assistance they so desperately need. Further alienating that nation will do nothing but strengthen the resolve of their current government and hardliners to go their own way, which will, in the end, tip that region even further into the abyss.
Sadly, sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes military force is inevitable. But as many others who are far smarter and informed than I am have pointed out, a nation’s leaders should always attempt a dialogue before the situation devolves into violence. If we refuse to talk to one another than our lines in the sand solidify and becomes ideological and dogmatic. It’s time to engage Cuba and Iran on a level other than embargo and alienation.