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The Effect of the Embargo on Identity and Human Rights

October 28, 2016
As I descended from the plane, joining the ranks of Americans newly permitted to step foot onto Cuban soil and the traffic headed into Old Havana, I spotted a provocative sign that read: Bloqueo: El Genocidio Mas Largo de la Historia— The Embargo, The Longest Running Genocide in the History of the World.

By Aizhaneya Carter

Although I do not believe the embargo is actually genocide, considering the UN definition of genocide is annihilating a group of people(s) based on discrimination with the intention of extinction, genocide is an interesting way to conceptualize US- Cuba relations. Although the embargo is not actually a form of genocide, what are the consequences of the embargo on Cuban identity? How is mobility influenced by identity politics? And what do government agencies do to protect the people caught in the middle of political crises?

This summer, I interned at the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection—an agency whose goal is to protect American people from unfair and deceptive claims. Although I cannot disclose information about the work I completed this summer, I can share its impact. Walking away from this internship, I truly understand the importance of the agency. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC) and over a century later, the FTC holds true to its mission to protect consumers and competition.

Although it is wonderful that American trade preferences are protected, this raises the question, whose responsibility is it to protect people caught in the conflict of trade agreements? As of currently, there is not an agency established by Congress in the United States to cope with the humanitarian issues created by trade policy. The embargo serves as one of the longest standing trade agreements that create questionable human rights violations. Since 1961, the United States began issuing economic sanctions to countries who engaged in trade with Cuba. “[According to the Cuban government estimates], more than fifty years of stringent trade restrictions has amounted to a loss of 1.126 trillion dollars,” (Council on Foreign Relations). To this day, the embargo is continuously enforced. Since December 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department fined companies more than a total of 5.2 million dollars for violating the embargo (Council on Foreign Relations). The economic losses and political isolationism fosters human rights violations that are often times ignored, such as limits to, “vital access to medicines, new scientific and medical technology, food, chemical water treatment and electricity,” (Amnesty International). Unfortunately, many Cubans who seek to flee from their destitute lives in pursuit of better ones, first and foremost, do not have the economic nor social means. In addition, international law inhibits the opportunity for Cubans to immigrate to the United States.

I identify as Black-American, although I am often times told that I am African- American. I have a contentious relationship with the term “African-American” in reference because my relation to the continent of Africa is relatively loose. I have visited the continent once on vacation. I cannot trace my lineage back to the continent— a byproduct of the enslavement of my ancestors. In addition, it seems, the continent does not want to claim me. Similarly, America does not want to claim me. Therefore, in America, I am typically labeled as African-American—never African, never American, always African-American. There is a distance traveled in the hyphenation between African and American. It is a reminder that I belong neither to Africa nor America, but rather, I operate in a limbo space where I can wholly claim neither geographies nor cultures. My identity is inextricably tied to the trade policy from the late 1700s to mid-1800s; a policy that celebrated the trade of human beings. In response to this trade policy, Black-Americans, forced to live in the Americas, created a culture to cope with the ramifications of the trade policy because there was no governmental agency to protect the social, economic, civil, cultural human rights. This culture, today, popularly incorporates the stories of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Trayvon Martin, Fried Chicken and other Soul Food, enslavement, Jim Crow Laws, #BlackLivesMatter and a system of governmental agencies that did nothing to protect these people.

In traveling to Cuba, I recognized a similar struggle with exiles and immigrants, especially those of African descent, who do not have a system of protection from the effects of the embargo. Although denied their statehood by Cuba, exiles who left for America often times do not assimilate wholly to the American culture, and therefore are not granted their American-ness. Author Maria de los Angeles Torres astutely observed the difficulty of functioning as neither completely belonging to either land.

In the host country, immigrants’ “ethnic” behavior at first becomes an exotic curiosity. When the “strange” ethnic behavior persists, then immigrants are asked “Why don’t you become American?”… And in the home country, Cuban exiles are asked “Why are you still Cuban?” (de los Angeles Torres)

Identity is then polarized and not allowed to exist in an alternative space that is both American, Cuban, Cuban American, Afro-Cuban or any other varieties of identity.

I actively perpetuate this hierarchy of access established under the embargo. As an American, divorced from my African diasporic identity, I can travel almost anywhere. To top it off, I am loving my access. Yet, that is a privilege I was born into and a privelege that is protected by the United States government.

The study of mobility, access, displacement and identity is vast and unending. This writing simply touches on aspects in which I am immediately interested. It poses the question, whose responsibility is it to enforce the social, civil and economic rights of those trapped in the middle of intergovernmental trade negotiations?

Work Cited

  1. “Amnesty USA: The US Embargo Against Cuba.” http://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/amr250072009eng.pdf. Web 5 August 2016.
  2. “CFR Backgrounders: U.S.-Cuba Relations.” http://www.cfr.org/cuba/us-cuba-relations/p11113. Web. 5 August 2016.
  3. “Encuentros Y Encontronazos: Homeland in the Politics and Identity of the Cuban Diaspora - Pdf.” Web. 5 June 2016.
  4. “Federal Trade Commission: Our History.” https://www.ftc.gov/about-ftc/our-history.    Web. 5 August 2016.
  5. “Migration Policy Institute: Cuban Immigrants in the United States.” http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/cuban-immigrants-united-states. Web. 5 August 2016.
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