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November 29, 2016

This is a guest post by William Crotty ,Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Chair in Public Life and Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Northeastern University.

Cuba has always interested me professionally (teaching) and personally. I went there for 8 days in February 2015, shortly after President Obama had begun opening up travel (although I had to go through a difficult pre-opening process to qualify).  The U.S. State Department continues to restrict travel to some extent. Tourism is still not formally allowed for U.S. citizens except for those who qualify for one of a dozen categories (education, art, public health, etc.) although in reality these restrictions are hardly enforced.  The Cuban government does not restrict U.S. tourists from travel around the island although transport and accommodations are very limited. 

A few points on Cuba and then the impact Cuban émigrés have had on American politics. It has been substantial.

First Cuba is stuck in time. The old Chevies are great, but held together by tape and goodwill. It is a security state, although it claims it pales in contrast to the U.S. Hearing the perspectives of people in the streets, doctors, administrators, hotel workers, soldiers, authors, psychiatrists, taxi drivers, etc. presents quite a different picture than we find in the American press. For one thing Cuba has had ongoing talks on an erratic basis with the U.S. since at least the days of Jimmy Carter. Cubans do not trust the U.S. government, whose economic blockade for years caused hardship, but are friendly and welcoming to Americans. The Cuban economy is in shambles. They import an estimated 80 percent of their food; have no industry I could find; cannot develop their rich oil deposits; have few exports (cigars, rum, medicine and doctors - at which they excel). Tourism from Europe is a big factor, and increasingly from the U.S. – although they do not have the hotel, B&B, restaurant or transportation capacity needed to capitalize on the surge.  Cubans have been allowed to open paladares (private restaurants) and tourists can eat lavish meals or stay at the equivalent of a very upmarket hotel – although these are very limited in availability.  Ordinary Cubans have lean meals, virtually no beef or fish, and must employ creative ways to survive the economic problems. Private American corporations are anxious to invest in the country. They will find a huge market in every area conceivable.

Cuba received substantial support from the Soviet Union pre-1989 and from China in the 1990s. It did not come free. China did some nice reconstruction projects, if limited in number. In return they dismantled and took to China most of the sugar mills. Cubans refer to the immediate post-Soviet era as the “Special Period,” characterized by even greater domestic hardships than before. It has been that type of existence since the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s. The placements for the missiles still exist as do the trenches and defenses along the Havana coast, as Cubans were led to expect a potential invasion by North Americans at any time.

Cuba is a socialist nation. The government guarantees housing to citizens but does not have anywhere near enough stock. Cuba guarantees a free education and it has a virtual universal literacy rate now, but also it has few universities. It guarantees free medical care and has a surplus of doctors but few hospitals (they place their emphasis on public health and preventive medicine).  In an area of potential great interest to the Massachusetts community, Cuba apparently invested heavily in medical and drug research which has yielded groundbreaking results, including a lung cancer vaccine and a treatment for diabetic leg ulcers. They report almost no diabetic limb amputations, a development which has attracted interest from physicians in the Boston area, who are aware that the medicine, called Heberprot, is used in several other countries already. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also validated a method the Cubans developed to prevent mother-to-baby HIV and syphilis transmission, which WHO considers a major public health achievement.

While in Havana I visited the annual weeklong Havana International Book Fair which attracted thousands of Cubans and others from different countries. The University of Havana has a computer science program but until 2015 banned Wi-Fi (though Cuban entrepreneurs developed work-arounds which enable them to market weekly downloads of North American television shows to regular customers). Cuba emphasizes culture with music, dance and painting as priorities. And they expect to keep all this while weathering what will amount to an economic invasion from American corporations. The mix of socialism and capitalism will be difficult.

I’d advise anyone interested to visit the country in the near future before it all begins to change. I see a transformation of the country in progress and one the government can not possibly control. Fidel Castro, the hero of the Revolution, impetuous and unpredictable as he was, is honored as the father of all that has been achieved. His brother Raul, now president, is more pragmatic and realistic while still embedded in the revolutionary culture. He is considerably less charismatic than Fidel was. He is also believed to be a more skilled government administrator.

Little is said in the country about what Fidel Castro replaced. Fulgencio Batista’s reign was a brutal, corrupt dictatorship that exercised arbitrary police power at will. It welcomed Meyer Lansky and other Mafia figures who ran casinos, prostitution and drugs and a good part of the economy. Batista is not missed. When he fled, many professionals and those who benefitted from his largesse went with him. Most landed in Miami. They have had a visceral hate for the Castros and the Revolution. They conducted private raids, set up spy operations in Havana and participated in efforts (along with the U.S. government) to assassinate Fidel. They also as a group have done well in Florida and have been heavily involved in American politics. For decades they were considered the key to carrying Florida’s rich number of electoral votes. In return they required an unrelentingly tough stand on Cuba that, given how presidential politics operates, left little room for presidents to be creative. Select members of Congress took up the cause of Cuban-Americans with a vengeance, led by the late senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms.

The continued animosity has not served this country well and it has impoverished Cuba. Obama is making an effort to institute a series of openings that can not be reversed by a different administration. The fact that corporate America is aware of the money to be made is a good sign in this regard. Also the younger generation of Cubans in Miami are considerably less obsessed with Castro and Cuba than the older generation of émigrés. Younger Cubans are caught up with American music, dress and movies and some see business potential. This seems to be their major concern, not a revolution from another age.

This is promising, as is the fact that Cubans are visiting the U.S. with great frequency. Unfortunately, while they are fully aware of the culture and political developments in this country, their primary image of the U.S. is of a violent country, a perspective they gained from U.S. television. On another level, Fidel released the Mariel boat people, mostly hardened Cuban prisoners, to come to Florida years ago. They have also had an impact on the U.S., continuing their trade in this country.

The émigrés left their homes in Cuba and for decades, backed by members of Congress, have demanded restitution for their Cuban properties and businesses appropriated longs ago. The Cuban government does not see it the same way and in return is also demanding restitution from the U.S. for damages done by the U.S. economic blockade of the island nation. This is not likely.

As noted, Cuba has developed exceptional advances in medicine which have been made available in other countries.  With the opening of trade and the removal of barriers, these should become available in this country. The   FDA recently approved clinical trials of the Cuban lung cancer vaccine in the U.S., one example of a potential enormous benefit to Americans from a more open relationship between the two countries.

Cubans honor Fidel Castro as the founder and spirit of their Revolution. From these shores, the view is mixed at best. The fact that the U.S. and Soviets could have engaged in a nuclear World War III over the Cuban missiles is still alarming.  Overall an effort to resolve our differences and work together is long overdue. Fidel Castro’s day is past but Obama’s initiatives could not have advanced if Castro did not accept and support them.

Fidel Castro, Cuba, Barack Obama

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