COMMENTARY: It’s time to end the Cuban embargo

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz is a Roman Catholic laywoman and professor of Christian Ethics and Theology at Drew University, Madison, N.J.).

UNDATED _ The Latin American Conference of Bishops recently joined a chorus of other voices, including those of Pope John Paul II and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States, in condemning the more than 30-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba.

But regardless of such pressures, the embargo continues because enough government officials insist its economic pressure on Cuba will bring Cuban leader Fidel Castro to his knees. This position seems politically expedient for them, and it fuels their hope that the scarcity the embargo produces will lead the Cuban people to rise against the Castro government.

Although the embargo is not the only, nor even the main, reason for the economic problems of Cuba, I believe the embargo is immoral.

It is immoral because it has not and will not accomplish its goal _ getting rid of Castro _ while its negative side effects bring great suffering to the Cuban people.

I was born and lived in Cuba until I was 18. I recently returned there to work with theology students. I was amazed at the never-ceasing struggle of Cubans simply to cope every day.

Castro legalized the dollar a few years back and it is now estimated that more than 50 percent of Cubans have access to U.S. dollars _ from their families living abroad, from working in tourist-related industries where they are able to pocket tips, or from working in key industries where the government gives a few dollars a month as a production incentive.

Extra income also comes from small family businesses such as establishing"restaurants"in the living rooms of their houses, or providing taxi services in their cars, or renting a room in their homes _ all of which are allowed by the government if only family members work in these businesses and taxes are paid on the income.

To get around paying taxes _ which are quite high _ there are many Cubans who work"on the side,"not declaring their income.

The need for money beyond what they get or could get working at a regular job is real since the staples the government used to provide for pennies are now, in part as a result of the embargo, very limited.

The monthly salary most workers are paid in Cuba covers, at best, basic needs for two weeks. Cubans survive the other two weeks thanks to their ingenuity in siphoning off resources from government programs and the money they make on the side or receive from their relatives abroad.

This is an immoral situation.

At the same time, Cubans know the present economic situation could continue for twice as many years as they have endured it. They complain bitterly and openly about their situation.

And, of course, those most affected are the elderly and women. The elderly do not have the resources or energy to find ways to make money. Women, still responsible for the children, the elderly and the household, face a double and triple work load. The help with the children they received from the government, such as inexpensive day care centers and wide availability of school lunch programs and boarding schools, has been severely cut back.

In addition, the assurance of health care for the elderly has evaporated since little medicine is available and hospitals barely function due to dramatic reduction of medical and other supplies.

While the political situation is extremely complex, there is no question the daily lives of the people of the island Columbus considered"the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen,"is a very difficult one.

The embargo keeps us from knowing the reality of more than 11 million Cubans, who are among our closest neighbors. The embargo has made us strangers to one another and has fed a fear of each other that is hard to resist.

But fear leads to ignorance and prejudice and is something we must overcome if we do not want our humanity to diminish.