Thursday, September 11, 2003
Earlier this week, Congress voted on and passed an amendment to a major spending bill that would loosen the ban on US travel to Cuba. Known as the Flake/Delahunt amendment, the Bush administration has threatened to veto.
Local Congressman Sam Farr, who''s taken an active interest in Cuba, voted for the amendment. During floor debate, Farr said, "This travel ban runs counter to the core Constitutional concept that the American right to travel is an absolute and non-negotiable right, a reflection of the free and open nature of our society."
For Americans, essentially barred from traveling to Cuba since the US imposed the trade embargo on the island nation four decades ago, Cuba today is a mish-mash of these kinds of nostalgic images and bogey-man visions. Many Americans are fascinated, many more are repelled; some are both.
The Clinton Administration seemed to be inching toward some kind of rapprochement with Cuba in its final months, but since 9-11 the Bush White House has shifted the relationship firmly back onto belligerent footing, maintaining Cuba''s long-standing State Department status as a "terrorist state."
Labeling Cuba a terrorist state is to miss the bigger picture of the strong attraction between America and Cuba. To use a human analogy, it''s more like a wayward lover who won''t come back but sort of wants to; and we might like it if they did.
A nation of 11 million people, Cuba is now poised at the entry way into the global economy, where it will be challenged as much by a world hostile to socialism as by its own internal deficiencies. But the world "has a lot to learn" from Cuba, according to Cuba expert Jan Black.
A professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) specializing in Latin America, Black has seen much of Cuba''s last 50 years firsthand. She first traveled there as a teenager in 1956 and found it as tantalizing as everyone else.
"What impressed me most on my first visit were strange fruits and perfumed air, music and beaches, and, of course, boys," she writes in a recent essay.
That was before the 1959 revolution that vaulted Castro to power and vanquished an American industrial colony that controlled the country''s mines, tourist industry, sugar plantations, railways and power systems. Isolated by the US, Cuba came to be dominated by the Soviet Union, and grew dependent on that former superpower''s trade and annual multibillion-dollar subsidies.
Black first returned to Cuba in 1979, and since 1999 has led groups of 25 MIIS students on 12-day expeditions every year. She sees a Cuba that''s far more complex than the Che Guevara murals, colorful street dancers and scenes of men playing dominoes day and night that fill travelers'' photographs.
Black argues that Cuba''s revolution and subsequent economic hardships, particularly the traumatic loss of Soviet subsidies following the USSR''s collapse, forced Cuba to be cohesive and creative in ways that established capitalist systems cannot be.
For one, Cubans have socialized health care and plenty of doctors--one per 200 citizens, as opposed to one per 800 in the US. Its practitioners take a holistic and preventative approach to medicine, she says. (That''s the up side; the down side is endemic shortages of medicine, bandages, needles, and other supplies.)
Isolated and poor, Cuba has had to find creative solutions to many basic needs over the years. Since food imports are scarce, many city dwellers rely on organic community gardens for their fresh vegetables. Black says half of Havana gets its fresh produce from such gardens. When fuel became too expensive in the early ''90s after Soviet subsidies disappeared, Havana''s citizens began riding millions of bicycles Castro imported from China.
Innovations like these--along with the country''s centralized and heavy-handed government--have saved Cuba from starvation and other ills that have felled many Third World nations.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Black says. "It''s an example of what people can do if they don''t have the options of advanced countries or richer countries."
Black makes no bones about Cuba''s problems. "There''s a lot that''s broken, don''t get me wrong," she says. Many of the individual freedoms Americans take for granted, rights guaranteed in our Constitution, are severely restricted or non-existent. And although the population is nearly 100 percent literate, she says, there''s almost nothing to read.
That all might change quickly.
To say there''s investment interest in Cuba in 2003 is an understatement. The country is ripe ''forbidden fruit'' waiting to be picked by American entrepreneurs and corporations, once the embargo is lifted.
Black points out that of Cuba''s one million visitors in 1998, about 2,500 were American business executives.
With such anticipated development comes the sort of perils that endanger any community. A massive influx of tourism from around the world has brought investment by foreign business in resort infrastructure. It''s also brought a dual economy in which a bartender getting tips in greenbacks has huge economic advantages over a brain surgeon.
Nonetheless, driving from downtown Havana back to the airport, one does not see commercial billboards yet, but billboards "celebrating socialism," Black says.
Although it''s unclear what the future holds for Cuba politically, its economic health is clearly changing. With regime changes there, here or both, the trickle of investment in Cuba could easily build into a flood. Black is not so concerned that Cuba might lose its identity under such a massive economic onslaught, but that private-sector interests would overpower the innovative, socialist-inspired public sector, denying Cubans their sturdy safety net and the human comfort it affords.
"The challenge for Cuba is to hold on tight to that," she says.