Peter Van Buren: Drinking Rum Until I Understand the Cuban Embargo

It was easier for me to pass through Cuban customs and immigration than it was for me to come home to the U.S. “Be sure to try our rum while you’re here!” said the Cuban official. “You’ll need to pay duty on that rum,” grumped the American official a week later, after the retinal scan, facial recognition scan, photo, passport inspection, agricultural questioning, and bag check that allowed me home.

The rum is in a way what a trip to Cuba for an American is really all about. Rum, and el bloqueo.

It becomes the first Spanish word you learn after the glasses are filled: El bloqueo, the blockade, the economic and political embargo. Some 60 years ago the United States slapped a near-complete economic embargo on Cuba, a Cold War spasm that lives on long after the struggle it may have served ended. It accomplished little of substance in Cuba except perhaps to impoverish some while fostering blackmarkets and corruption that enriched others. And like that other imperial boil, Guantanamo, the embargo sits atop Cuba as a symbolic wet blanket of American foreign policy, maintained by presidents Democratic and Republican alike.

The embargo is also why you can’t buy Cuban rum in America.

“Sit down, have something to drink, rum for my friend, you’re American, I must ask you a question” is how a dozen encounters with Cubans from different walks of life began. Educated or not, old or young, they all asked: why does the United States maintain the embargo? Fidel Castro is dead. His successor, his brother Raul, soon will be. The Soviet Union is no more. The excesses of the Cold War, when Cuba sought to export its revolution, are now just adventure stories old men misremember to their bored grandsons.

The embargo started in earnest back in 1962, and grew to include almost all commerce between the United States and Cuba, snaring famously that Cuban rum (and cigars. Then-president John F. Kennedy loved his Cuban cigars so much he had an aide buy out existing stocks in Washington DC before he initialed the embargo paperwork.)

The stated purpose of the embargo is to pressure the Cuban government toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights.” The result was that American businesses could not invest or operate in Cuba. Cubans could not sell their agricultural products in the United States. The embargo preserved those wonderful classic American cars you see in any documentary about Cuba, frozen in time as new vehicles could be imported. The Russians slid into place as Cuba’s economic godfather, followed by the Special Period, those years of particularly acute suffering after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a limited loosening of the embargo as it applied to tourists under the Obama administration (and a titular change of the American Interests Section in Havana into the American Embassy in Havana; “unofficial” diplomacy never really ceased) followed by a planned re-tightening of tourist travel by President…

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