Sunday, January 03, 2010

Blockade Heads

Some of you by now may have heard that a group of Americans traveling (legally) to Cuba near Christmas were turned back and refused entry to the country. The group, under the aegis of a non-profit group called Cuba AyUUda (Cuba Helps), had a few members put on an aircraft back to Cancun, while the rest, including a couple of 70-year-olds, were detained in a room at the airport overnight with no seating and no beds before being sent back the next day when there was space on the next scheduled flight.

This group, based in Portland, OR, has been traveling legally to Cuba since 2003 under a Religious Activities license. It was formed after a choir from the First Unitarian Church of Portland toured there in early 2003 and the director and his wife decided that this was just the start of what could be an effort to build bridges between the people of the two countries. Since then, there have been several trips to Cuba, every one an attempt to not only help different aspects of Cuban life, but also to help the travelers gain an understanding of what life in Cuba is like.

I have a certain amount of insight because my wife is the vice-president of Cuba AyUUda (the UUs stand for Unitarian Universalism), both of us went on the 2003 choir trip, and she has co-led four trips there since. This is not a pro-democracy group trying to overthrow the Castro regime. This is not a group trying to smuggle in things they aren't supposed to, talk to people they aren't supposed to, etc. This is a group that is simply trying to make life a little better for a country that has alternated between a de facto American colony and a country run by thugs, not unlike many of the countries in Latin America.

When we heard that this particular group had been detained, a quick Internet search showed the primary reason - a US contractor (unassociated with our group) had been arrested for working to break the "information blockade" by distributing computers and cell phones to pro-democracy groups in Cuba. His arrest on Dec 5, 2009, was not reported in the US until Christmas Eve, the day the Cuba AyUUda group left. While we are still uncertain as to the exact motivations of the Cuban government in detaining and refusing entry to our group, it isn't hard to connect the dots and realize that they were probably refusing entry to Americans of all stripes. Since it is very difficult to obtain *any* license for US citizens to travel to Cuba from the US government, it's possible that this was the first legitimate US group to try to enter the country after the Cubans decided to bar them. Interestingly, attempts to contact the Cuban Council of Churches, a requirement to enter the country for religious work, were met with silence.

Also interestingly, my wife's most recent trip returned on Nov 22, 2009, only five weeks before. This could have easily been my wife's trip instead, with her in the middle of international saber rattling.

Every authoritarian government needs someone to point to in order to frighten it's people and distract from it's own shortcomings. For Hitler it was the Jews. For the Arabs, its the Israelis. For the Americans, it's Islamic terrorists. For the Cubans, it's the Americans. And the thing that has allowed them to use the Americans as bogeymen for the past 50 years is the economic blockade.

In other words, our political stance toward Cuba gives them every excuse in the world to make us an object of hatred. The blockade, in short, bolsters the Cuban government.

And the only thing keeping the US from dropping what has gone beyond a sick joke and into collaboration with the "enemy" is Floridian electoral politics during presidential elections. Because that's where the Cuban ex-pats, what I call the "Miami Relatives" after those who tried to prevent a Cuban child from being reunited with his birth father after his birth mother died, hold the swing votes in a state with 21 electoral votes, which in 2000 and 2004 was enough to determine who ended up becoming president.

The ironic thing is, the blockade is what helps keep the Castros in power (now Raul, as Fidel is clearly on life support, if he's alive at all). Like all blockades, it hurts the common citizen much more than it does those in power, who can get whatever they need. Since the Cubans are used to a certain amount of deprivation after the withdrawal of the Soviets in the early 90's (a period in which they nearly starved with no assistance from us), and the rest of the world flocks to Cuba as a tourist destination, it's kind of ridiculous.

And let me assure you, Cuba is not what anyone would consider a threat. It's not even a threat to Haiti. Cars and gasoline are scarce enough that there is a system of cooperative hitchhiking in place in order to get from one part of the island to another. When we were there, I even saw military *officers* hitchhiking. While Cuba might have been heavily militarized during the Cold War, those days are 20 years in the past and there are no more Soviet military advisors sending Cubans to fight in proxy wars anymore. Cuba is about three thousand items down the list of serious threats to the US, far below rabid partisanship, willful ignorance, and tort law. I believe the TSA is a bigger threat.

In fact, I believe that the blockade is all that's keeping the current form of government in place in Cuba. Take away the blockade, flood the country with American tourists looking for Cuban cigars and rum, and you'd find that proximity would result in a flood of information that would destroy any grip the current government has on it's people. As an example, just look at the current situation in Iran, where attempts to control unrest over what appears to be a fraudulent election by controlling the flow of information is failing, and badly.

But every two years in the US is an election year, and even the mid-terms where we don't elect a president are now critical when the party not in power wields the threat of filibuster even when the majority party appears to have an overwhelming majority, and everyone up for election within two years (the vast majority of Congress) doesn't want to be seen as "soft on Communism" at a point in history when the only real Communist threat is now North Korea (China has long since decided that it's own interests are more important than being ideologically pure, as seen by their emerging capitalist economy).

And so we persist in giving the Cuban leadership exactly what they want for Christmas every year, like a parent who placates a child that screams every time that child has the slightest desire. The time to have lifted the blockade would have been immediately after Obama took office, although everyone at the time thought that the Republicans would spend a little time regrouping instead of deciding to fight every decision made in the new White House, even when the same decision had been made by the previous Republican administration. That time is gone, however, but there is still time to lift the blockade before the mid-terms start in earnest. Because once the mid-terms are over, we start the next two-year presidential election cycle and the opportunity will have been lost to the Miami Relatives once again. Although, to be fair, it seems they *never* forget a slight.

At the very least, however, giving them a little time to see what sort of effect the lifting of the blockade would have might change their minds. Maybe.

Yes, Cuba is a country with a crumbling infrastructure, cars that were either produced in the US in the 50's or Russian models (although there are a lot of Mexican imports like what was once the Ford Fiesta), and rampant corruption - I had a Cuban try to sell me cigars under the table *during* a tour of a cigar factory, and in *front* of the tour guide. However, I believe that to a large extent, much of these shortages are due more to decisions made by the Cuban government than by the blockade.

The sad thing is that the lifting of the blockade will almost certainly begin the erosion of those few positive things that the Revolution brought to Cuba - universal education, universal health care, the best literacy rate in Latin America, and independence from any superpowers. Lifting the blockade will, in time, destroy all of those bright dreams. Yet education and literacy are stifled when you aren't allowed to freely exchange information (although from the tenor of political discussion in this country, you'd never guess that the US has free speech), and health care is of little use if the rest of your life is spent making sure that you aren't pissing off the government and being forced into years of hard labor because you tried to make a little money on the black market when what the government provided wasn't enough.

I also fear for those Cubans who have worked with Cuba AyUUda, including one woman who was there when Fidel took Havana and very happy about it (and still is), another man who saw the end of Soviet patronage and the resulting chaos, and a younger woman who has seen the Cuban tourism revival and subsequent erosion of living conditions over the past decade. I sincerely hope that their work to help Cubans is not seen as counter-Revolutionary and that their lives are not affected negatively as a result.

Right now, the best thing we can do for the Cuban people is to remove the travel restrictions and economic sanctions as a whole between the two countries. Cuba may put their own restrictions out there, but they will no longer be able to scapegoat the US as the source of their problems if we're not the ones keeping them down. I urge the President and all members of the US Congress to think about the Cuban people instead of their own reelection for long enough to lift this blockade. Both we and Cuba will be better for it.

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