Moises Naim On The Obssession With Cuba

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush recently had a face-to-face debate in Canada to discuss current affairs. The only Latin American nation mentioned in their conversation? Cuba. In April the heads of state of the Americas met in Trinidad. The central theme? Cuba—the only country not invited to the summit. Last week the Organization of American States (OAS) had a summit in Honduras. What thorny problem dominated the discussions of the -foreign-affairs ministers, including Hillary Clinton, who had to divert her attention from the North Korean nuclear test and the crises in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan to travel to the summit of the OAS? Cuba, of course. A few months ago, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, convened a meeting to discuss the situation in Cuba. The room was overflowing. A few days later it held a far-less-attended meeting. The subject? Brazil.

The obsession with Cuba is not exclusively American. It is as intense in Europe. It would be natural to conclude, there-fore, that no other Latin American country matters more to the rest of the hemisphere, or indeed to the rest of the world, than Cuba. Unless, of course, one looks at a map—or at some statistics. Brazil occupies almost half of South America's land mass and is the fifth largest country in the world. Its territory is nearly 80 times larger than that of Cuba. More people live in just one Brazilian city, São Paolo, than in all of Cuba. Brazil's economy is the ninth largest in the world and one of the most dynamic—it is also 31 times larger than that of Cuba. Trade between Brazil and the rest of the world is 25 times that of Cuba. There are 10 times as many Brazilians in the military as there are Cubans in the island's armed forces. In global negotiations on the environment, trade, nuclear proliferation, financial regulation, energy and poverty alleviation, Brazil is a major player.

Why the Cuba obsession, then? Why is more attention given to this bankrupt Caribbean island than to a continental giant and global player like Brazil?

The usual explanation is that Cuba has a unique symbolic allure. It is the small country that confronted the U.S. empire and has survived despite the attempts by all U.S. presidents since to subdue its communist government. It is the island with iconic leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and the Latin American country that in the language of revolutionaries everywhere embodies the struggle of socialist humanism against the materialism of capitalist societies.

Cuba is also the small nation that in the past sent its troops to die in faraway lands in Latin America and even Africa fighting for the poor (and to further the interests of the Kremlin, but that's another story). And it is also the country whose progress in health care and education for the majority became the stuff of legend. It is the small country that the United States has unsuccessfully tried to isolate for decades through a variety of means—including an absurd and useless embargo that hurts the United States more than Cuba. The embargo is the perfect example used by anti-Americans everywhere to expose the hypocrisy of a superpower that punishes a small island while cozying to dictators elsewhere.

But Cuba is not just the David that stands against Goliath. Unfortunately, it is also a country where people are willing to risk their lives and take to the sea in rickety rafts to escape from material deprivation, brutal repression and political suffocation. It is a country whose economy cannot survive without the handouts from its allies and where food shortages and hunger are common. It is also the country where, for more than half a century, power has been in the hands of the same family.

Meanwhile, in Brazil?.?.?.?a labor-union leader who was democratically elected twice and enjoys the world's highest levels of popularity has presided over an amazing period of social and economic progress. It is also one of the few countries that have successfully managed to reduce economic inequality at a time when everywhere else inequities are deepening. Successive Brazilian governments, of rival political parties, have succeeded in improving education, health and the living standards of millions of impoverished citizens who have now joined a growing middle class. Brazil has an energy policy that has spawned the world's most vibrant biofuels industry and is the global gold standard in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 1995, 15 percent of Brazilian school-age children did not go to school. In 2005, this fell to 3 percent, and today Brazil has practically achieved universal basic education.

And so the answer is obvious: there are no reasons why this country should be of greater interest to the policymakers and journalists than the bankrupt Caribbean island.

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