John Rash
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Adios Utopia” is the title of the Walker Art Center’s new exhibition of post-1950 Cuban art. It also could characterize the new mood about Cuban-American relations, which the Trump administration has dramatically dialed down since former president Barack Obama’s optimistic opening.

As the excellent exhibit depicts — and any observer could see — post-revolution Cuba was never near utopian. But then again neither is the recent rapprochement between the estranged neighbors. Sure, surges in tourism and diplomacy followed Obama’s reestablishment of relations. But Raul Castro’s regime welcomed the hard currency while resisting the hard transition toward a new respect for human rights and democratic values that was supposed to accompany the cash.

Meanwhile, the diplomats deployed to project and protect U.S. values came under assault, with nearly two dozen suffering hearing and brain injuries from a mysterious “sonic attack.” The Cuban government denies complicity, but some suspect hard-liners had a hand in the attack.

Reflecting the tension, the Trump administration recalled U.S. envoys from Havana, expelled some Cubans from Washington and tightened the vise by imposing new travel restrictions.

This mix of politics and trade — the subject of this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue — is embodied in the trade embargo the U.S. imposed shortly after Fidel Castro came to power. Unlike the presidential-level détente, lifting the embargo requires congressional approval, and Republicans have resisted revisiting the policy.

Well, not all of them. Republican Rep. Tom Emmer has partnered with a fellow Minnesotan, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to push colleagues to lift the embargo. In interviews last week, both Emmer and Klobuchar were quick to express concern over diplomats’ safety and acknowledged that the sonic attack set back their efforts, even if hostile foreign actors are the culprits. But both lawmakers maintained that the embargo continues to be counterproductive.

“We’re on the wrong side of history with this thing,” Emmer said. Reacting to a recent U.N. resolution condemning the embargo, Emmer said of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley: “You stand there on behalf of the U.S. government and tell the Cuban people, ‘We want to help you, we are concerned about your human rights, we’re concerned about your quality of life, we want you to succeed,’ and yet then vote to support the very policy that harms the people of Cuba more than it does the government that is oppressing?”

Klobuchar concurs. “The embargo empowered some of their real hard-liners who don’t want to make friends with the United States, but the people are way ahead of their government.”

In Cuba, certainly, but for the most part in America, too. “It’s an issue that’s a prisoner of domestic politics,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Latin American-focused Inter-American Dialogue. “The hard-liners on both sides kind of feed off each other.” With regard to Cuba, Shifter added, “The status quo has served the hard-liners well. They don’t want to put that power at risk.”

Risk is familiar to Gerardo Mosquera, one of three co-curators of the Walker’s exhibit. Artists are still repressed in Cuba, Mosquera said, and the situation is “very critical.”

But like most, Mosquera believes the embargo — intended to pressure Havana for more freedoms — is ill-advised. “The embargo is a Cold War fossil,” he said. “It gives an excuse to the hard-liners to keep their authoritarian stance in Cuba.” If it’s dropped, “They won’t have that excuse anymore.”

Hard-liners, and hard cement block, were apparently on the mind of artist Antonio Eligio Fernández when he created “El Bloqueo” (“The Blockade” or “The Embargo”). The island nation and the work’s title are depicted in cold concrete blocks, suggesting rigidity and isolation. Of Cuba, yes, but also of a policy.

“The fact that they used that material to build the work talks precisely about the impossibility of penetrating that,” said co-curator Elsa Vega.

Perhaps to the artist, when he created “El Bloqueo” in 1989, but it’s not impossible now if Congress has the courage to forgo a failed Cold War policy.

“Everyone in Cuba welcomed what Obama did,” Mosquera said. “Because whatever your political ideas might be, it’s just to be civilized and to establish normal relations between two neighboring countries.”

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.