I recently returned from a three-week trip to four provinces of Cuba. The trip was an educational and cultural exchange program sponsored by Global Exchange, based in San Francisco, which has authority from the U.S. government to conduct legal tours in Cuba.
While traveling through each province I had an opportunity to meet with and discuss various issues with a cross-section of Cuban people. I was able to ask questions of teachers and students in elementary and secondary schools, physicians and nurses in cities and very rural areas, farmers and their families, tour industry workers, government administrators, a psychiatrist, artists, musicians and small-business owners.
Contrary to the extremely superficial and misleading information about Cuba typically provided by U.S. media, Cubans are not people who are apparently suffering, starving, dispirited, depressed, disaffected or particularly unhappy. I found Cubans in all walks of life to be friendly, open, energetic, fun and willing to discuss politics and policies of their government.
There is poverty. The Cuban economy hit bottom between 1989 and 1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed. More than 85 percent of Cuba's trade had been with Soviet bloc countries. But in speaking with a leading Cuban economist and journalist, I learned that in the 1970s and 1980s the economy grew at a rate of 6 percent to 7 percent per year. Since 1993, tourism, the leading sector of income in Cuba, is growing at a rate of 18 percent, and the economy as a whole is growing at 2.5 percent per year.
Tourists are coming from all over the world and include plenty of Cuban-Americans going home to visit relatives. Cuba has diversified its trade partners to include Mexico and several other Latin American countries, Canada, Japan, Korea, India, Western European countries and several Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. The majority of rental cars are new German, Japanese or Korean imports.
There are many private businesses in Cuba with over 140 categories of private occupations. Eighty-five percent of all Cubans own their own houses or apartments. Cuba's response to the economic crisis of 19891992 (referred to as the "special period") has included the incorporation of the U.S. dollar into their monetary system. Currently one can purchase items with pesos, dollars or a convertible currency which acts as a bridge between pesos and dollars. Clearly, Cuba has a mixed economy.
President Bush's simplistic statements about a country and people he has never experienced highlight our national embarrassment with the completely unsupportable policy of continuing the embargo on Cuba. Cuba is certainly not a communistic government, but it is socialistic in ways that might make us envious. They have a completely free health-care system with highly trained medical generalists and specialists. They have a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. They have one doctor for every 200 people. Education is free through high school for all Cubans, and university and graduate education is completely free for those who qualify for entry. The Cuban literacy rate is above 90 percent.
The continuing embargo will never result in challenging Castro's power and will only stress the Cuban people who like Americans and want to have free trade. If anything, the embargo strengthens Castro's position because he continues to use the "outside enemy" and the embargo as a rallying point to motivate his people to survive difficult economic challenges. Whatever failures of Cuban economic and political policy could potentially be the responsibility of Castro's regime can be deflected and blamed on the United States.
By "trading with the enemy" (Cuba) we will participate with the rest of the world in revitalizing a people and a country ripe for economic change. Not one of the arguments given by the current administration for the continuation of the embargo makes any rational sense. We are all familiar with the stale stereotypical references to the "evils of communism" and Castro's "brutal dictatorship." Somehow we have ceased using those terms in referring to one of our prized new trade partners -- China. This outdated and inappropriate policy will change, but we need to make our voices heard so that the Bush administration cannot hold up the process any longer.
There are a number of ways we can make our voices heard. Many state and federal politicians already want to lift the embargo, but they need our support. We can impress upon those representatives who are either undecided or against lifting the embargo to look at the facts. I recommend that you investigate the Global Exchange Cuba Campaign (www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/cuba) for ways you may be able to participate.
Bob McAndrews is a Colorado Springs resident and serves on the graduate faculty of the Union Institute and University. His academic background is in social anthropology and political theory.