I had the fortune to be in New York when the United Nations General Assembly was held. The General Assembly began on September 28th and ran through October 3rd. It is the largest annual gathering of world leaders with the purpose of discussing important geopolitical issues. This attracted a cast of characters from all corners of the globe to give impassioned speeches, to gain world attention for their particular causes. Admittedly, I caught only small portions of the speeches on TV. But I did get to see pieces of Obama’s polished and staid oratory, along with the photo of his epic stare-down with Vladimir Putin. Benjamin Netanyahu appeared scary and vociferously unrepentant whereas Polish president Andrzej Duda verged on being colorful.
The New York air was thick with diplomacy. As I rounded the corner near 38th and 3rd on the east side of Manhattan’s to attend some routine business at the South African Embassy, I ran into a group with more than one hundred people who were barricaded into a portion of the sidewalk. Immediately I noticed a handful of NYPD glowering at them.
Their signs read things like, “end the embargo,” with a large banner that said “Welcome, Raul Castro!” They chanted “North, South… we’re all Americans.” When I stopped and asked them what their purpose was, they told me that they were standing in solidarity with Cuba. I was surprised to see the open support for Castro and also the police surveillance.
Barack Obama and Raul Castro Meet In New York
Castro showed up for the General Assembly and was reportedly well received. He had a meeting with Obama which was cordial, peppered with small talk about a recent visit by Pope Francis to both of their countries. One of Obama’s greatest legacies will be working toward more normal relations with Cuba. Although he has not lived up to his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, he has at least made progress. His advancement is evident in the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in turn opening in Washington D.C. in July. We have come a long way since the Bay of Pigs, but the progress in relations have been conspicuously minimal through the Bush Administration.
Cuba and the Embargo
As many of the demonstrators demanded, there must be an end to the painful embargo against Cuba. This drastic measure has caused incalculable suffering in the nation for decades and is cruelly levied against the people of Cuba, who do not threaten the United States. They do not deserve to continue to be punished by a wilted piece of diplomatic history. Many exonerate Obama because they blame the inability to do so on an incompetent Congress that remains ignorantly and ideologically opposed to lifting the embargo. Why?
While human rights abuses are used as a scapegoat to block the embargo, it is the embargo that continues to inflict suffering on innocent human beings. The reality of the situation is that the maintenance of Guantanamo Bay symbolically represents hypocrisy because innocent men have been released after being detained in extreme conditions for extended periods. Many men are held with little evidence and no access to justice. No doubt there is at least one innocent man who is still being detained in Guantanamo while Cuban children go without necessities because of an exceptional U.S. moral higher ground. Like the demonstrators, we must demand change.