Mackay: Sanctions on Cuba are hitting a different target

The 1986 measures taken against South Africa surely hastened the end of apartheid. In most other cases, embargoes are a blunder. Take Cuba. We started imposing sanctions against Cuba a half century ago. Where have they gotten us?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has put a number to the impact. It cites estimates that the embargo annually sacrifices $1.2 billion in U.S. exports and revenues. That's nearly twice the cost suffered by Cuba, experts contend. George Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, said in 2009: "With the Cold War behind us, we should simply remove the embargo on Cuba."

I just returned from my most recent visit to Cuba, having now been there a half-dozen times. This visit convinced me there will be a tremendous change in Cuba in the next five years. No one will recognize it from the paternalistic, cradle-to-grave operation that country has been since 1959 when Fidel Castro took power.

In 1976, I led a 21-person trade delegation to Havana for five days. Our goal was to negotiate future trade with Castro. That's also when I learned he spoke perfect English -- after I struck up a conversation with him about his passion for bowling.

When Fidel checks out, Father Time will be the likely culprit. After all, El Comandante has survived countless assassination attempts and is 85. Meanwhile, his younger brother -- the modest and pragmatic Raul -- is really the helmsman. As to speechifying, Raul is the short-winded sort, something his brother has never been. Fidel recently summoned 60 world leaders and harangued them for four hours. His wife made him rest for an hour, but then the octogenarian came back and pitched for another four.

Raul, president of the Council of State of Cuba since 2008, is a savvy problem solver. Smoothly, and under the radar, Raul has been dismantling Fidel's classical communist agenda:

• He's released 100 political prisoners.

• He doesn't assail the U.S. as the root of all Cuba's problems.

• He has organized grass-roots feedback organizations for himself.

• One hundred seventy-eight categories of activity are now licensed for private-sector development and entrepreneurship.

• In the next five years, 40 percent of the economy will be privatized.

• Education is revered, and the population is remarkably well schooled.

• Tourism has displaced sugar as the most important force in the economy.

Compared to Jamaica, Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras, Cuba is a jewel for the average citizen. The government pays all basic living expenses. With great medical care, its life expectancy rivals that of the United States.

Life is no day at the beach for the 11 million people of Cuba. Raul is reputed to be as brutal as he is tough. Officials still get fired for dissing the government, which happened to two of them recently. Discretionary spending is a fantasy. The average Cuban income is a paltry $20 per month since their essentials are basically provided.

Freedom is stifled everywhere. While many Cuban kids have Facebook pages, Internet access is restricted. Cubans hunger for the Internet and freedoms we take as givens.

Despite sanctions, up to a half million Cuban Americans fly to their ethnic homeland annually. Speculation about a possible oil bonanza in Cuba might cause us to look at the embargo differently. It may take something that dramatic for sanctions to end and for U.S. cruise ships to dock in Havana Harbor. Meanwhile, one wonders if Washington realizes who is paying the real price.

Mackay's Moral: Sanctions rarely speed democracy, especially when a regime has already begun to tilt in our direction.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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