In the south central Cuba, where giant sugar plantations once dominated the landscape, vendors make a living today selling hand crocheted and embroidered clothing and linens, carved wooden jewelry and gifts, like dolls that flip over, one side light-skinned and on the other side, dark, and model American cars shaped from soda cans.
As an American visitor, the notion of shopping for souvenirs isn’t new and our tour group would empty the bus at every stop and pour over the offerings at any particular sight. One hot afternoon, looking through the shirts and dresses on the street in Trinidad, I had a startling realization: not only was the clothing handmade; every single wire hangar displaying them was handmade as well, crafted of repurposed wire from a fence or who knows where.
In an eight-day visit to Cuba, I return thinking, yes, the old cars are remarkable, and the architecture, much of it in disrepair and crumbling, is spectacularly beautiful. But more than that, the resilience of the Cuban people to survive six decades of the U.S. trade embargo, compounded by the crippling loss of support from Russia in the 1990s, is both remarkable and humbling.
For all of my life, I have understood the embargo to be a high-minded effort on the part of the United States to convince Cuba to abandon socialism for democracy. And through the years, every time the case is made for normalizing relations, the idea is squelched by the powerful Cuban-American community in Miami, who make the case that doing so without certain assurances would only reward Cuban President Fidel Castro.
But the political and cultural reality is far more complicated and subtle. The communist government established by Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara with the Revolution no longer exists. The Havana that Miami’s Cuban-Americans left in the 1960s and 70s is also gone.
In its place is a country that has taught itself through absolute necessity to survive, using whatever political, religious and economic means necessary.
The Cubans have, for example, excelled in developing medicines, educating doctors, and responding to medical crisis around the world. Their doctors and nurses, whose help after Hurricane Katrina was rejected by President Bush, were heroes in stopping Ebola in West Africa.
It is impossible to know in an eight-day visit to a country that we’ve been banned from visiting for 50 years, whether our group is hearing truth about life in Cuba, or what the Castro government wants us to hear. But in some ways, the very fact that we were exploring Cuba carried a stronger message than what any individual person told us.
At one paladar – a newly allowed, privately owned restaurant – in Santa Clara, the owner shared that the building had been her family home, where her parents helped Che Guevara during the Revolution that put Castro in power. She was proud of her revolutionary heritage, proud to be a Cuban, and happy to have a restaurant full of Americans spending money.
Her message was repeated in dozens of people-to-people encounters. The Cuban people were happy to see Americans, and even happier about the prospect of getting our tourism and our business. Even more, the Cubans have figured out how to survive without the United States or Russia. In other words, they don’t need us to fix them; what they would like is to be part of the world economy.
President Obama has led the way to a new relationship with Cuba, but that relationship can only be truly changed when the trade embargo is lifted.
The naysayers who argue that it would only reward Castro should actually visit Cuba in 2015 before they say “no.” The collective resentment of Fidel Castro is no longer a good reason to continue to isolate 11 million Cubans. It’s also a pretty foolish one to deprive the rest of the world of everything that Cuba has to offer.
Patty McQueen is an experienced communications strategist and media spokesperson with a background in politics, journalism and corporate communications. She launched her firm, Communication Strategies, in 1997. She can be reached at @pattymcqueen.
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