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Opening the Door to Cuba

Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

The Clinton administration did a courageous thing in early October. It took advantage of a clause in the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 that calls for more people-to-people contact with Cuba. As a result of Clinton's actions, more Americans now can legally obtain visas to travel to Cuba, undergraduates can study in each other's countries, relatives can send more money to aid their family members still in Cuba, American news organizations can open bureaus in Havana, and humanitarian and relief organizations can expand their work inside Cuba. This is all good news.

The Clinton administration should be applauded for its policy in the face of anti-Cuban legislative action from such people as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana). One U.S. official was quoted as saying that the Eastern European experience in the late 1980s proved that more openness and contact led to the profound changes that shook those nations. The same logic should apply to Cuba. But more importantly, at a time when American resources could greatly improve the lives of ordinary Cubans, the U.S. government has been denying the opportunity for simple humanitarian gestures. Food and medicine from America will win more goodwill with the Cubans than anything else we could do right now.

The discussion of whether the Cuban trade embargo should be dropped or tightened is all tied up in American politics. But this is not about politics. It is about easing suffering. Clinton's decision to open the doors, just a little bit, rightly ignores politics. It focuses on the simple--and profoundly American--philosophy that the free exchange of ideas and contacts between people leads to more freedom, not less.

I have visited Cuba eight times in the last four years. It has been an extremely difficult time for our neighbor to the south. The lack of everything from food and clothing to electricity and medicine has made life miserable for the average Cuban. In the last two years, however, I've found conditions marginally better with each visit. European, Mexican, Canadian and Asian investors are pouring money into Cuba, and slowly but surely, Castro is relaxing his laws regarding private enterprise. While conditions are still dire, the economy clearly is starting the long road to recovery.

The people still suffer. A cleaning woman in my office has an elderly father in Cuba. She traveled there recently to take medicine to him, medicine that he couldn't get locally. Upon her return, all she could do was bemoan the fate of her relatives. She said there was no food, no work and, as she knew in advance, no medicine. There are hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans just like her: A Cuban taxi driver in New York who talks longingly about going home. A business owner in Miami, anti-Castro to his core, who worries that he may never see his homeland again. All of them are concerned about relatives left behind. These are the voices of Cuban-Americans who are ready for a change.

Now is the time to step in and show the Cuban people exactly what America is capable of doing. President Clinton's brave decision at least gives Americans the opportunity to step forward with assistance. The day will come when the embargo and the long suffering of the Cuban people will be over. Wouldn't it be nice if, at this point in history, Americans were remembered for helping out when it was needed?

The Cuban people are wonderful. They deserve our help. Given U.S. policy toward countries such as North Korea, China and Vietnam, with which we fought a war that cost 58,000 American lives, it would seem we have been too hard too long on our southern neighbor. Let's start building a bridge between Key West and Havana so that democracy and economic prosperity will take root and the Cuban people will find peace of mind and happiness at long last.

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