Cuban joke #1: Before the revolution, we had a wealthy class, a middle class, and a huge class of the poor. Then came the revolution and now we are all equal. Everybody’s poor.
I heard that last month when I joined other Idahoans for the first of several trips to Cuba sponsored by the Boise-based Wassmuth Center for Human Rights. U.S. travel to Cuba is possible only under certain conditions, and we each had to agree that we would attend all tour activities and not run off to the beach.
Why visit Cuba? Simple: Because it’s been off limits for most of our lives and now it isn’t.
President Obama’s recent decisions to resume relations with Cuba are just the latest in a saga that began in 1960 when the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations and President Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo, through the 1998 easing of restrictions on Cuban-Americans sending money to relatives, to President George W. Bush’s 2003 authorization allowing export of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, and then to the 2014 diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba with Pope Francis acting as middleman.
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In between were some noteworthy events: the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the U.S.-Cuban missile crisis and subsequent U.S. quarantine of the island, and, of course, the Elian Gonzalez affair.
For those who don’t remember, in 1999 Elian’s mother and her boyfriend fled Cuba for the U.S. The mother drowned, but relatives in Florida were determined to keep the child even though the boy’s father in Cuba wanted him back. After a court battle and an armed intervention, Elian was returned to his father. (It was hard not to wonder at the time what American public opinion would have been had the situation been reversed, with Cubans trying to keep a child whose American father wanted him back.)
Clearly, the relationship between the United States and Cuba has been a rocky one for more than a half century. Still, as Neil Sedaka’s pop hit of the early ‘60s put it, breaking up is hard to do.
In reality, U.S. citizens have been going to Cuba for quite a while. Gov. Butch Otter journeyed there as a congressman from Idaho and again in 2007 as governor, hoping to find a new market for Idaho goods. (That’s Butch: Drop him down in the Himalayas and he’ll probably start selling potatoes to the Sherpas.)
The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba can only be ended by Congress. Any moves toward restoring relationships will undoubtedly be opposed by some of the Cuban exiles who fled after the 1959 revolution, leaving behind in many cases their homes, their careers and their fortunes. Just straightening out competing claims will be a legal nightmare.
But on the ground, seeing poverty everywhere, it’s tough not to want the embargo lifted. Cubans have to go farther away to buy needed goods, increasing the costs to consumers whose average monthly salary is equivalent to about $20. And since nearly 70 percent of Cubans weren’t even born when the revolution occurred, we’re punishing the wrong people.
(For a comprehensive look at arguments for and against lifting the embargo, go to ProCon.org and search for “Cuban embargo.”)
Cuban joke #2: A block or so down the street from the U.S. Consulate in Havana is a statue of Jose Marti, an early advocate for Cuba’s independence from Spain, holding a small Elian Gonzalez and pointing to the consulate. At first the statute was interpreted as accusing the U.S. of wrongdoing. Now it’s thought to be saying, “There’s where you go to get your visa out of here.”
Since 1966, Cubans who make it to the U.S. get preference for permanent legal residency and now, fearing the new diplomatic relationship will end that practice, Cubans are voting with their feet looking for a better political and economic life. The New York Times reported last month that about 30,000 Cubans reached the U.S. in 2015.
It’s a dangerous journey for the Cubans, unlike the quick charter flight the Boise group took from Miami. The easier solution will be to lift the embargo, allow trade to flow between the two countries, and let Cubans figure out themselves what their country’s future ought to be.
Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.