By TONY WHITE
Tony White of Santa Rosa is a retired Sonoma State University history professor.
I recently returned from a trip to Cuba with 20 students from Sonoma and Marin counties, many from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University. While Americans may visit Cuba, it is illegal to send money to the Cuban government, which controls 85 percent of the economy. Therefore, we traveled on a special trading license issued by the Treasury Department.
Barack Obama is the 11th American president to enforce the embargo against Cuba, clearly a failed policy since the Revolution and its leaders are not only alive but still in control. Last year, the U.N. General Assembly condemned the U.S. embargo as an illegal blockade by a 187-3 vote. Rather than isolating Cuba, the embargo has isolated us.
Today, the embargo has no justification, since we maintain cordial relations with much more repressive governments in Asia and the Middle East. Cuba is not a threat to anyone, and its leaders have shown that they want to cooperate in the struggle against terrorism.
For 50 years, Cuba has been the target of terrorists, many of them trained by the CIA, and we are still using a piece of Cuban territory, Guantanamo, to house foreign terrorists captured in other countries.
The United States is also sheltering several Cuban-Americans who allegedly plotted and carried out the bombing of a Cuban airplane, killing 76 civilians, as well as planting bombs in Cuban hotels to discourage tourism and attempting to kill President Fidel Castro in Panama.
During our visit, we learned about an international campaign to free five Cubans serving long sentences in U.S. federal prisons for spying. After they were convicted in Miami, they were transferred to separate prisons, where they have been kept in solitary and denied visits by family and attorneys. Though they have admitted to spying on anti-Cuban terrorists in Florida, because of their attacks on Cuba and its leaders, “the Cuban Five” are viewed as patriotic soldiers performing their duty in the war against terrorism and are revered as national heroes.
Although Cuba provides free medical care and has clinics with a doctor in every neighborhood, and all Cubans receive a free education through a doctorate, there are obvious scarcities in this state-controlled economy. Some of them, like new cancer treatments developed by U.S. pharmaceutical companies, are either not available or have to be purchased through third parties, increasing their cost.
While some of the shortages are caused by mismanagement, others are the result of the embargo and the current global recession. Fewer tourists are coming from Canada and Europe, the major source of hard currency as well as employment for many Cubans. While Cuban leaders blame the embargo for their mistakes, Cuban families are the real victims of our embargo.
Aware of these shortages, our group brought nonprescription drugs, art materials, and school supplies, which we donated at a medical clinic, a senior center and an elementary school. We also visited an urban organic garden project, a community mural project and a priest of Santeria, a religion blending Christianity and African religions. We were always greeted warmly and treated to live performances of Cuban music, from rumba to traditional to rap.
While there is no question that the government of Cuba, now in the hands of Fidel’s brother Raul, is a dictatorship that censors expression and arrests dissenters, there are signs of an economic opening, offering more opportunities for free enterprise and investment, and Cuba has recently released scores of political prisoners.
In Haiti, American and Cuban doctors worked together after the earthquake, while U.S. cargo planes fly over Cuba to deliver supplies to Haiti. We also share a concern about offshore oil drilling in the Caribbean, especially since new deposits have been discovered off the north coast of Cuba, less than 90 miles from Florida beaches. Given our current recession, Cuba also offers a potential market for exports beyond food and medicines.
Since Obama has lifted travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, he should also lift them for all Americans. It is time for Obama to exercise his constitutional authority end the embargo and normalize relations with Cuba.
Tear down that wall, President Obama!