When I recently visited Cuba on a Witness for Peace people-to-people tour, I had my own share of predictable expectations from salsa and jazz to palm trees and smiles. All verified, though some smiles were muted as we arrived on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion with a hunger strike by U.S. prisoners underway at Guantanamo.
To visit Cuba is to face the brutal contradictions of the American empire. It is to love ones country and want badly to right it so our principles shape our policies. In the case of Cuba, our policies were worse than I thought.
I learned that in the 1990s, during what Cubans call the Special Period, Cubans lost an average of 10 pounds per person. The collapse of their trading partner, the Soviet Union, also brought down their oil-driven agriculture, and the U.S. responded by tightening a trade embargo imposed decades earlier to sink their economy and Fidel Castro.
On Tuesday, the Cuban government will ask the United Nations to condemn the embargo. Each year, we get only one or two needy allies to join us in backing the embargo. The vote last year was 188-3. Why do we still maintain it?
As the representative at the U.S. Embassy in Havana explained to our group: These things have a life of their own. If youre thinking there is no U.S. Embassy in Havana, thats technically correct. There is, however, a seven-story building on Havana Bay, a Swiss embassy with no Swiss in it, where our Interests Section is lodged, displaying U.S. power. In answer, a mass of Cuban flags rises as high as the embassy and rip and roar in the gulf wind.
There we got confirmation that Americans and Cubans want to visit and trade. About 400,000 Americans visited Cuba last year legally, and the U.S. is Cubas sixth-largest trading partner (some say fourth) despite the embargo that penalizes others who trade with Cuba.
Our embassy representative spoke dismissively of Cuba as having a mid-size U.S. citys economy while celebrating U.S. economic and military force. However, the people in the room cared more about America as a force for justice. For us, the most American thing one can do is work for what Cubans want: an end to the embargo, a return of Guantanamo, their deepest harbor, and normalized relations.
Our nations stand to learn from each other.Cubas struggle is inspiring. Faced with the loss of oil and chemical fertilizers in the 1990s, farmers, professors and the government made strides in organic farming that are noted the world over. While North Carolina rejects federal medical funds for 500,000 low-income people, Cubas medicare-for-all puts the country ahead of the U.S. in health results. Excellent and free university education makes their technicians in science, medicine and agriculture valued throughout South America. A food coupon system secures 10 days of meals for each Cuban.
Some would be troubled by the slow email and dearth of malls, commercials and stores. There is a wealth gap that may widen as dozens of categories of businesses opened for private enterprise. Our youthful Cuban guide longed, like others, for Americas consumer culture that his father had disappeared into. That was until he served in Nicaragua and saw the unaddressed poverty there; then he said he understood the Cuban Revolution.
We spoke also with a farmer who enjoys a simple, thriving life, his sons living on adjacent fields. He recalled for us the Batista years with quotas on the tobacco sharecroppers could sell. His father had to sell their surplus to the landowner who resold it for four times more, right before their eyes.
Despite their poverty, Cubans are working together for a society where everyone matters and resources are well used. Meanwhile in America, the worlds richest nation, the few hoard wealth, and possibilities for the vast majority shrink as resources are squandered. We need not fear a successful Cuba unless we are afraid of rediscovering American values or addressing the excesses of capitalism.
With so much to gain through trade and exchange, why dont we normalize relations with Cuba and end the embargo? Lets agree with the rest of the world today when it votes once again to condemn the U.S. embargo.
Anne Cassebaum is an associate professor emerita at Elon University.