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Wickham: Real outreach to Cuba would target all Cubans

A man sits in an old car as he waits for tourists in Havana. President Obama is allowing Americans to make unlimited trips and money transfers to family members in Cuba , but he isn't going far enough, writes DeWayne Wickham.

A man sits in an old car as he waits for tourists in Havana. President Obama is allowing Americans to make unlimited trips and money transfers to family members in Cuba , but he isn't going far enough, writes DeWayne Wickham.

The Obama administration’s decision to ease embargo restrictions on traveling to Cuba and sending money there must have seemed like a smart political move to the president’s advisers.

It gives Cuban-Americans what a majority of them want: greater freedom to return to their ancestral home and send unlimited amounts of money to relatives there.

It also came days before President Obama met with the leaders of 33 Latin American nations, thus easing pressure on the president, who during his White House campaign promised to dramatically change the way this country engages its enemies.

Cuba has been on America’s enemies list for nearly half a century. The aging U.S. embargo was meant to strangle the economic life out of that nation and topple its communist regime.

On both counts, the embargo has been a dismal failure. It has succeeded only in sharply diminishing American influence in Cuba and straining this country’s relations with virtually every other nation in the hemisphere.

As a geopolitical move, relaxing the embargo is a good first step. It does not, however, address a peculiarity of the island’s racial divisions that the U.S. played no small role in creating.

During the U.S. occupation of Cuba (1898-1902) following the end of the Spanish-American War, the American government demanded racial segregation of Cuba’s army and imposed Jim Crow practices throughout Cuban society.

That led to the May 1912 massacre of nearly 6,000 black members of a political party agitating for an end to racial discrimination.

Little changed for black Cubans until Fidel Castro came to power and gave them a bigger role in the life of the country. In turn, they became the core of his support – and the least likely to join the Cuban exile community in South Florida.

As a humanitarian move, relaxing the embargo is a weak gesture. Why? The vast majority of Cubans who have moved to the United States are white.

While Cuba’s government reports that people of African descent make up just 35 percent of the nation’s 11 million people, many Cuban scholars say nearly 70 percent of the population is black or mulatto.

Allowing only Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives back home reinforces a racial stratification that is deeply rooted in policies forced upon Cuba more than a century ago.

“Supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their future and that of their country is in the national interest of the United States,” the Obama administration said in a statement announcing the relaxed embargo restrictions.

But the administration’s policy inadvertently discriminates against the majority of Cubans who, like Obama himself, are of African descent.

To ease this problem, the president should permit all Americans – not just Cuban- Americans – to travel to Cuba and give financial help to anyone living there.

That would open the way for black churches and others in America’s black communities to aid black Cubans now isolated from such help by the embargo.

The Obama administration is right to try to strengthen contacts and goodwill between the Cuban and American people. Such bridge-building holds out a greater potential for change on that island than the Cold War-era embargo still in place.

But this outreach must not be blind to the painful realities of Cuba’s racial division – a divide the United States had a hand in creating.

DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who writes for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com.

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