“That is an absolute lie.”
This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.
Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.
Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”
Except, it wasn’t. Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint: he didn’t.]
Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.” This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.
This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.
Except, Harkin was right. There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done. This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.
Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms. More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009. Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro. This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.
We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S. last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives. Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.
The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is. Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.
This is a classic confusion of ends and means. Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake. And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.
This strikes us as wrong. Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them. Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible. If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?