End the Cuban Embargo

I’m not a political science major or a historian, but as an observer in Cuba over twelve short days and someone who did some reading to prepare for our trip, I still have a point of view. I believe the United States embargo against trade with Cuba has outlived its usefulness and should be ended. First, a very brief history–and we got a lot of history from many points of view over the twelve days.

Cubans had been chafing under Spanish rule through the 19th Century. The Spanish relinquished control of Cuba in 1898 in a war we call the Spanish American War, but which our Cuban guide, Ilen, calls the “Cuban, Spanish, American War.” The great Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti was a leader then, killed in 1895, and the United States came in for only a few months–think Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders famous charge up San Juan Hill. Cuba finally became an independent republic in 1902, but an amendment to the Treaty of Paris gave the U.S. some controls (they called it protection) and Guantanamo Bay. The closest of all the Caribbean countries to the U.S., Cuba became an American playground. Many famous Americans visited or moved there, and also lots of not-so-famous people. The walls of one of our hotels in Havana, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, was practically papered with photos of celebrities in the hotel, including many with Fidel Castro.

After a series of governments rising and falling, in 1953 another Cuban revolution began against the corrupt and repressive Batista government. This was led by Fidel and Raul Castro, whose turn toward communism angered and frightened the United States. In 1960 the United States began an embargo on Cuba, prohibiting all exports to Cuba. In response, Cuba strengthened relations with the Soviet Union. For more than 40 years, there was no trade, and the only way United States citizens could visit Cuba was by sneaking in through Canada, Mexico, or another country. In 1996 the Helms-Burton Act strengthened the embargo, prohibiting private groups from distributing humanitarian aid to Cuba, and in 2004 President Bush eliminated Culture Exchange Licenses to Cuba, prohibiting high school and college groups from traveling there.

I’m going to leap ahead. It’s 2011, there’s no longer a Soviet Union, tourism is the biggest industry in Cuba, tourists abound from every country except the United States, and Cuba can trade openly with every country except the United States. But in this year, some sanity at last. President Obama eases travel restrictions to Cuba, affinity groups (educational, cultural, religious, etc.) are allowed entry, and in January of 2012 I flew, openly, from Miami to Havana on a Grand Circle Foundation People-to-People “Bridge Between Cultures.”

Among the things I learned: the United States has a presence in Cuba. It’s called a Special Interests Section. It is technically an arrangement with the embassy of Switzerland, but that’s a formality. Actually it’s part of the State Department. The United States has three Special Interests Sections, all in countries where we don’t have diplomatic relations: Cuba, North Korea, and Iran. I googled U.S. Special Interests in Cuba and eventually found several photos of the building. (See the link.) We were taken there on our third day in Havana. It is a large, windowless building with the Stars and Stripes flying outside, lots of security outside and in. Our Cuban guide was not allowed to come in with us, no photos of course, and we all had to show our passports to be allowed inside, where a spokeswoman from the State Department explained that a Special Interests Section functions much like a consulate, issuing visas, etc., but it doesn’t have that title. They work, she said, under constraints from both countries. She gave us history from the political point of  view, justifying the U.S. position, but the questions we asked were more about how she lives in Cuba. (She lives in Havana, has a car, carries on daily living in the city; many of the employees in the section have families with children who go to school and spouses who have jobs outside of the Special Interests Section.)

One week later, on our last day in Cuba, we had a lecture on the embargo from the Cuban point of view. I felt sorry for our lecturer; he was not an official from an agency or government, but an engineer who had strong feelings about reaching out to Americans. His English was not great (lots better than my Spanish) and maybe we overwhelmed him with our questions. When he brought up the five Cubans in American prisons, I asked why Cuba was keeping Alan Gross imprisoned (Gross is an American Jew who came to Cuba to help the Jewish community set up a communication system). He didn’t have an answer.

By this time, we had heard many Cubans speak against the embargo–artists, musicians, dancers, others we met as part of the cultural exchange, people who wanted to extend their audience into the States. There was a thread going through their discourse–that the only people in favor of the embargo are wealthy Cuban-Americans living in Florida who are making a lot of money because of the embargo. There was the belief that these entrepreneurs export American goods to South American countries, from whence they are shipped to Cuba. Is that a bizarre idea? I don’t know.

Enough of politics. You can’t go to Cuba without being aware of the embargo, but there was so much more to my trip. Next post, I’m going to write about food.

(Much of the information in this post came from the Grand Circle Foundation catalogue, Cuba People-to-People Journeys, www.grandcirclefoundation.org/cuba)

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