Opinion: Why Cuba is important to Americans
Special to the Free Press
In 2003, a group of students and two faculty members traveled to Cuba from Grand Junction under a soon to be annulled agreement allowing U.S. academic institutions to travel there through the United States Interests Section. Given her political science degree, my then colleague, Elaine Rodriguez, was most eager to see Cuba while the revolution was still functioning.
During our trip in Cuba, which included 20 some students from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University), we were “escorted” by two charming, tri-lingual guides from Havana Tours, a company subsequently shut down by the Helms-Burton Act. In spite of this carefully orchestrated travel arrangement (one of the few available for university groups at that time), we were treated to fascinating lectures and conversations with some of the country’s leading intellectuals in areas ranging from anthropology (Santeria religion) to political science (one-party system vs. the U.S. model), economics (we met with the Cuban Chamber of Commerce) and the arts (from ceramicists to avant-garde painters).
For 10 days we traveled by bus from the western most region near Havana to the centrally located town of Santa Clara via Cienfuegos and Matanzas. We were able to savor a special and historically significant place where huge investments in infrastructure and human services were contradicted by threatened colonial gems. Here a lack of access to building materials had endangered what UNESCO identified as “world heritage sites,” like the first coffee plantation, Old Habana, El Valle de los Ingenios, Cienfuegos, etc. In spite of the embargo and the fact that Cuba’s client relationship with the Soviet Union had terminated with the demise of the Eastern Block in 1991, Cubans demonstrated their resourcefulness in creating organic urban gardens (“Organipónicos”), small-scale eateries (“Paladares”) and the creatures of the underground economy, which one will find in almost any spot on the globe. In one such operation a local fisherman augmented his salary by providing red snapper dinners for hungry foreign tourists at $10 a pop in one of the most iconic of Revolutionary locales — the Bay of Pigs or Playa Girón as it known there.
Culturally and historically, Cubans represent one of the oldest economies and sophisticated literary, musical, scientific centers in Latin America and perhaps the world. Their contributions to developing communities throughout Latin America in spite of their own hardships, which the U.S. embargo has placed on them, is remarkable. One need only note Raúl Castros’ recent offer of medical personnel to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as an example of Cuban generosity.
Early on after the successful revolution — which deposed the embarrassment of his US puppeteers, Fulgencio Batista in 1959 – Cuba’s leaders saw the opportunity to export their successes to other countries struggling to gain independence from colonial powers (see the Congo, etc).
The readers would be naïve if they consider Cuba the only country to support militarily another given the fact that we in the U.S. have actively supported the overthrow of numerous democratically elected leaders (Allende in Chile, Arbenz in Guatemala, and the well-documented attempted overthrow of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as recently as 2002).
In the 1980s, I worked with Cuban exiles in Pennsylvania after a flotilla brought them here from Mariel under Jimmy Carter. The individuals I taught ESL to were “the dregs of the Cuban prison system” as they have been described. Yet despite their nefarious histories, they were knowledgeable of world events, literature (one of them discussed Faulkner’s importance in Latin American letters to me) and were quick to recognize that they admired the accomplishments of their country. They simply were not able to remain in that environment given their asocial behaviors.
Another individual I met in New Hampshire was a “balcero” or one who crossed the Straights of Florida on a raft of tire tubes. He was a young, black agronomist who was thankful to the Revolution; given the fact that his father was a cobbler, if not for the generosity of the Cuban state he would never have been able to study agronomy in the university.
Under the current economic boycott, U.S. agriculture is missing out on a huge, nearby market.
The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce recently highlighted the importance of beef to our local economy.
U.S. consumers are not allowed access to world-class rum and arguably the best cigars on the planet.
But most importantly, the interpretation by our Latin American neighbors of our 60-year-old embargo is that of a frustrated bully who claims to act in protestation of human-rights abuses, but is really caught up in hypocritical inertia or is under the sway of a minority of embittered Cuban exiles living in Miami.
The majority of U.S. citizens wonder why we punish one communist regime while another, China, is our largest trading partner. Or if we wish to think smaller, why are we trading with Vietnam on the other side of the planet and not our neighbor 70 miles off the coast of Florida?
It is time for us to ask Congress to revoke the failed 60-year-old trade embargo against Cuba.
Tom Acker is a professor of Spanish and teaches History and Culture of Latin America at Colorado Mesa University.
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