Hurting the Cuban People Since 1960

04/17/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2013

When Cambodia's Khmer Rouge committed genocide from 1975 to 1978, which ultimately took 2 million lives, the U.S. government was slow to allow relief agencies to go there with life-saving assistance after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power. It was slow because of something popularly called the Trading With The Enemy Act, or more formally, the U.S. Export Administration Act, requiring dual licenses from the U.S. Departments of Commerce and the Treasury to send American-made material aid and to follow it over to ensure its wise use. The U.S. denied initial requests by many relief groups to go to Cambodia because the U.S. also embargoed trade and aid to Vietnam which it felt was in control of Cambodia's new government.

Having received the first U.S. license to fly aid into Cambodia and Vietnam in 1979 after a direct appeal to President Jimmy Carter and over the strenuous objection of the U.S. State Department, Operation USA (then known as Operation California) and the American Friends Service Committee were issued joint licenses to fly in aid. In the 34 years that followed, the U.S. has used trade and aid embargoes against a number of countries and in so doing has diminished the ability of independent civil society groups to function. (Note there is no licensing requirement to travel to North Korea, nor to send it food and medicine.)

A Harvard University Medical School study of the effects of a trade and aid embargo on Saddam Hussein's Iraq estimated that more than 500,000 Iraqi children may have died as a proximate result of lack of access to medicines and medical equipment. Sure, it was Saddam more than the US which isolated his country as an international pariah state just as it is the Kim Family of North Korea who are principally responsible for North Korea's isolation.

Cuba, unlike countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, has US standard electrical systems and relies on US made or US standard spare parts for many areas of its infrastructure. Unlike Iraq, North Korea or the Khmer Rouge Government of 1975-78 in Cambodia, Cuba is a leader in the Nonaligned Movement of more than 100 countries and has quietly cooperated with the US Government on combating the Caribbean narcotics trade, ending airplane hijacking and other government-to-government concerns. It annually receives near-unanimous votes in the United Nations calling for an end to the US trade and aid embargo.

Not one leader or regime in the 34 years I have been working in international relief has been tossed out by an angry populace blaming it for the privations caused by US embargoes -- the lack of vaccines, essential medicines, spare parts for x-ray machines in pediatric hospitals, fertilizers, water purification chemicals and the list goes on.

While the Cuban people are admirable on both sides of the Floridamillion Straits for their talent and their outspokenness, Cuba is no gulag. Sure, I would prefer a more wide open system of politics, the economy and a freer press, but Cuba can also point at the U.S. for its 2.2 million imprisoned citizens, its unjust imprisonment of the "Cuban-5" for reporting back to Cuba on Miami-based Cuban terrorist groups, our gross violations of human rights and our own constitutional system at Guantanamo Bay, and our nearly unregulated culture of gun violence.

The faux upset at rapper Jay-Z and the incomparably talented Beyonce for traveling on a people to people cultural visit to Cuba is simply misplaced and a function of some very ugly politics in both the Cuban exile community in Florida and New Jersey, and of the small Caribbean countries which fear an adverse impact on their own tourism industries (and rum, cigar and gambling industries) if the US normalized relations with Cuba.

I've been in Cuba during far higher profile cultural exchanges than Jay-Z and Beyonce's private trip -- like the opening of Ry Cooder's and Wim Wender's documentary on the musical group Buena Vista Social Club, which coincided with "Music Bridges" featuring 24 top US musicians and the Baltimore Orioles' first-ever US-vs-Cuba baseball game, all in the same week and all with Fidel Castro present! All these activities were ok with the US Government and in fact it was hard to keep Cuba-based US diplomats from wanting to hang out with these folks at Cuba's iconic Hotel Nacional.

The real issue for most humanitarian aid groups is what we see as the negative and often deadly effects of not reaching out to those simply wanting and expecting a little international cooperation rather than a half century's unremitting attempts at harming them and their children.