My mother left Cuba in 1965 at 11 years old. She and her parents were allowed to bring only three changes of clothes each and one or two pairs of shoes. No money and nothing of value. Diamonds? Gold? Left behind. My grandfather had a $20 bill in his pants pocket that was confiscated when he was going through airport security. My mother had a doll with her, and security guards ripped the head off, looking for anything that might be hidden inside.
My father’s story is similar. He emigrated the same year at 16 years old. His family left after waiting three years for the Mexican government’s approval for a visa. The timing of his departure was crucial, as it was just months before his 17th birthday. Once he turned 17, he’d be obligated to begin his mandatory service in the Cuban military, after which it would be nearly impossible for him to leave legally.
Both of my parents traveled with their families to Mexico, where they waited for three months to receive clearance to enter the U.S. Both families ended up in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, where they started over.
Just years earlier, in 1953, brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, later joined by their buddy Che Guevara, began their campaign to overthrow the American-supported Batista regime, which culminated in January 1959. The transition to communist rule was quick. Fidel nationalized industries and small businesses, closed churches, and banned private schools. Shortages quickly followed—ration cards got a person basics such as rice, beans, and coffee, but meat had to be purchased off the black market. Neighbors spied on each other, people disappeared, and many never came back. Political dissenters were, and continue to be, silenced.
The struggle for freedom in Cuba remains very real. While Raul has recently tried to “liberalize” the state, these actions are superficial. Who cares if you are “allowed” to access the Internet when you can’t afford a computer or to feed your family? And if by chance you can afford a computer and pay the high price for Internet access, the government watches you constantly.
Cuba continues to show stubbornness in accepting democratic principles. It’s listed on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. It has shipped weapons to North Korea, ignoring United Nations sanctions. It continues to practice indiscriminate arrests, such as that of American reporter Alan Gross in 2009.
My parents’ experiences in the 1960s aren’t isolated events of authoritarian leadership. Alan Gross’s arrest is just one recent example of these same indiscretions. Raul’s blatant disregard for norms of the international community proves that the embargo isn’t just something “left over” from the Cold War. Because the Cuban government controls all sectors of the economy, any trade would just pump money into the coffers of the state and only serve to strengthen the Castro regime.
Until Raul allows democracy, freedom, and markets to grow, the U.S. should not end the embargo. Doing so would be an offense to all of the people who, like my parents, fled the Castro tyranny. The true source of non-progress lies not with Washington but with the authoritarian regime in Havana.