The Last Man Standing: The U.S. Fails to Isolate Cuba Once Again

By Nicole C. Lee
—Guest Columnist— | Last updated: Jul 7, 2009 - 12:58:22 PM

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Nicole Lee
As we move into what we hope will be a new age of U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean, the role of Cuba cannot be underestimated. The level of cooperation with Cuba at the diplomatic as well as academic levels in the Western Hemisphere is not only strong and growing, but shows no signs of stopping in future generations.

According to a Miami Herald article about the recent passage of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act in the U.S. House of Representatives (as part of H.R. 2410), the United States is still the number one place students from Latin American and Caribbean countries want to go.

However, Cuba is the number one destination for students from five countries in the Western Hemisphere and number two for another 13 countries. Given its limited resources, it is noteworthy that Cuba is competing “neck and neck” with the United States as one of the top foreign study destinations.

Education in Cuba is universally accessible and free of charge at all levels and thousands of Latin American and Caribbean students, including large numbers of Africans and Afro-descendants, have Cuba to thank for a high quality education in areas often limited to them in their own countries, particularly medicine.

In 2007, eight U.S. students, including African-Americans, graduated from medical school in Cuba—the second class of Americans to do so. The program was established to offer full scholarships to foreign students willing to practice in underserved areas.

The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has not reestablished full diplomatic relations with Cuba. During the first week of June, the Organization of American States (OAS) held its 39th General Assembly in Honduras and unanimously voted to allow the reintegration of Cuba.

The OAS is currently the primary forum for political cooperation in the Americas and banned Cuba in 1962, citing its connections with the Sino-Soviet bloc.

The vote was seen as a diplomatic setback for the Obama Administration, which argued the re-admittance of Cuba should be conditional on progress, on democratic governance and human rights.

Although the fight to let Cuba back in was mainly symbolic (given Cuba has little interest in returning to the OAS and is already a member of the Union of South American Nations UNASUR), the process was singled out by some observers as evidence of a long overdue shift in Hemispheric politics in which the OAS abided by majority rule versus “doing whatever the United States wanted.”

The Obama Administration has made important efforts to thaw our Cold War legacy with Cuba by ending restrictions on Cuban-Americans to visit the country and send money to relatives, permitting U.S. telecommunication companies to operate in Cuba, and making advances with regards to bilateral dialogue on migration and direct mail service.

Yet, this is not enough. It is inexcusable that our government can ban us from traveling to a country with which we are not even at war and from which we have a lot to learn. In a recent meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Cuba was encouraged to continue strengthening its national legislation to bring it into better conformity with various human rights instruments.

At the same time, however, Cuba was overwhelmingly commended for being on track to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals and for its success in the promotion and protection of the right to health and education—areas where the United States could use some help, particularly in communities of color.

Continuing our failed policy not only threatens our regional relationships, but also our ability to learn from Cuba's strengths. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And with only 0.3 percent of U.S. college students studying abroad (according to UNESCO) and growing drop-out rates, we are bound to lose the battle.

(Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum.)