• It's past time for a thaw with Cuba
    April 12,2009

    lmost half a century ago, at the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower declared the United States insulted by the disputatious attitude of Fidel Castro's Cuba, and ordered a limited embargo of the island nation. Eisenhower's advisers assured him that the pain of the measure would soon bring Castro to his political knees. Over the years since then – during which the Cold War spectacularly ended – an abortive invasion by United States-armed fighters has failed; the embargo has been successively tightened; the Cuban exiles in Florida who could once deliver that state's votes to a friendly presidential candidate are dying off; citizens of the Land of the Free are not free to travel to Cuba; and El Caballo has become a feeble and ill, but defiant, old man. Still, we persist in our embargo.

    A few years ago, during the cowboy-diplomacy days of the recent administration, I had the opportunity to listen, along with a tour group of fellow Yankees, to a lecture in an auditorium at the magnificent United States Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana. (The building was originally the United States embassy when it was built in 1953, but with the rupture of diplomatic relations in 1961 the Swiss, at our request, moved in to protect our assets and maintain a communications link with the Cubans. How like a bunch of middle-schoolers we are, passing secret notes back and forth through an intermediary!

    The lecture was given by a young American staffer, who pretty much hewed to the party line: Cuba was a Communist country whose people were enslaved by a ruthless dictator; Cuba was ostensibly training doctors and nurses for mercy missions to war-torn developing nations of Africa. but was in reality sending revolutionary provocateurs and saboteurs to those countries; nobody knew how many Cubans were rotting in political prisons; etc. But I could sense, as a keen student of public address, that the speaker's heart wasn't in it. Sure enough; when during the question-and-answer session afterward she tacitly admitted that what she'd said had perhaps been a bit strong (after all, who knew? Dick Cheney might have been listening), someone asked what we might do about it. "Well," she said, "you can vote …"

    All right, we've done that now, and many of us have the feeling that the new administration, though somewhat tied up with fairly serious problems, will not be as unresponsive as the last to calls and letters from those of us who feel the embargo is outdated and absurd. While we sit on our ideological thumbs, other countries – Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Venezuela – are building tourist hotels and infrastructure and sharing the profits with the Cuban government. Meanwhile, our nation, that's spent billions trying to export democracy around the world, to Iraq and Afghanistan, is loath to water the roots of liberty only 90 miles from Key West.

    This is not to say that foreign capital has much improved the lot of the average Cuban. It has so far largely made life more comfortable for tourists. Cuba is still transported by 1950s-era automobiles, thanks to brilliant shade-tree mechanics who keep them running. Its agricultural economy, which could be prodigious, limps along with outdated Russian farm machinery. On the other hand, Cuban schoolkids have a higher degree of literacy than any others in the Western Hemisphere; they rushed up to us in their blue-and-white school uniforms whenever they saw our group, and asked us to help them practice their English, which was already excellent. They even knew where New England was. How many of our kids can name the provinces of Cuba, or even locate Guantanamo Bay? We asked Cubans we talked with how they liked their system of neighborhood-based socialized medicine, and heard nothing but enthusiasm for it. It's hard to believe that United States business interests haven't been pushing harder, in these fading days of the revolution, for access to Cuba's markets and products.

    Still, there are a few cracks in the wall already. Last summer a group of New Hampshire and Vermont kids traveled to Cuba to play against Cuban baseball teams. Vermont – whose commissioner of Education, Armano Vilaseca, happens to be Cuban-born – has shipped Vermont cows and powdered sugar to the Caribbean nation. And the Vermont House is currently debating a resolution urging the United States government to drop the ancient embargo.

    The way to free oppressed people is not to put the screws to their governments; the people suffer, and their leaders still get three squares a day. Instead, show them what they're missing and give them a chance to attain it: the old how-ya-gonna-keep-'em-down-on-the-farm technique.

    Havana is a city of magnificent old Spanish colonial buildings in serious need of repair. We sat in the three-story-high central atrium of one of them in mid-afternoon. The high walls blocked the sun from the ground-floor patio where we sat. The hot air at the top of the atrium rose, pulling air in through a hallway leading to the cobbled street, and we sat in a moving column of cool breeze – the 18th-century version of air conditioning. A man in a Panama hat and guayabera shirt ($1.50 US; I wish I'd bought half a dozen) ran sugar cane stalks through what looked like a meat grinder. He mixed the juice flowing out with white rum and bruised mint leaves, poured the mixture into a tall glass, and wiped the rim with a slice of lime. Mojito, it's called – Ernest Hemingway's favorite drink. We toasted his memory.

    Literally only half an hour farther from New England than the airports of Florida is a place and a people we've neglected for so long we've forgotten why the island has been called for over 500 years the Jewel of the Caribbean. It's time for Vermont once again to lead the way.

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