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A Democratic View

New York Congressman Charles Rangel champions the need for a new, more open U.S. policy toward Cuba
Charles Rangel
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

I first met Cigar Aficionado publisher Marvin Shanken over lunch at his New York office in 1998. The meeting had been arranged by John Kavulich to discuss the status of U.S.-Cuba relations, which weren't great, but were better than they had been in some time, after nearly 40 years of the U.S. embargo. Kavulich headed the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, whose corporate members, such as Cargill, the commodities giant, were eager to exploit what they perceived as a possible opening to allow U.S. agricultural trade with the island.

A congenial host, Marvin showed me around his office, including a beautiful cigar humidor originally owned by President Kennedy. His interest in Cuba was obviously tied to the prospects for Cuban cigar imports, which were also banned by the embargo. He wanted my views on how the Clinton administration and Congress might respond to growing appeals for a change in U.S. policy. At the time, I was not as optimistic as some others who believed long-term change was really in the air for Cuba.

Public interest in Cuba during that period was about as high as I'd ever seen since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion or the time in 1960 when President Castro stayed at the Theresa Hotel in my hometown, Harlem, to protest the way he had been treated in "downtown" New York. Also in the late '90s, Americans who had no political interest in Cuba were swinging to the rhythms of the Buena Vista Social Club. This mellow, 1950s-style Cuban bolero band fascinated millions of Americans who first saw them in a public television documentary. They provided the background music for the growing movement on Cuba.

In smoking clubs from Wall Street to Capitol Hill, Cuban cigars were in. At the White House, Bill Clinton was easing Treasury Department regulations to make it easier for Americans to visit the island, and for Cubans to travel here. In 2000, a record 200,000 Americans visited the island (a number that declined almost 50 percent to 108,000, in 2004, after President Bush reversed Clinton's moves).

Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998 heightened the sense of excitement. I flew down with a religious delegation from New York led by Cardinal John O'Connor. Later, in 2002, former President Jimmy Carter was greeted by President Castro in Havana, a widely heralded visit in which Carter publicly called for more openness in Cuban society and a change in U.S. policy.

John Bolton, President Bush's hard-nosed former ambassador to the U.N., tried to scuttle the visit by raising charges that Cuba possessed weapons of mass destruction.

By 2002, the momentum toward a change in U.S. policy was strong enough to force the Republican-dominated Congress to yield to pressure from Democrats and the agribusiness lobby to legalize sales to Cuba of U.S. agricultural commodities. U.S. food sales almost immediately rocketed to nearly $400 million in 2004, but then declined 11 percent the following year because of new banking restrictions imposed by the Bush administration.

Fast-forward to July 2006. Word leaked out of Havana that President Castro was on his deathbed. By August, the president—who was celebrating his 80th birthday—relinquished power to his brother, Raúl Castro, leader of the nation's military. The reaction in Miami was one of the most sickening displays of political hatred that I've ever seen. In television broadcasts around the world, people described as Cuban Americans were shown dancing in the streets, expecting, if not hoping, that the man they called The Dictator would soon meet his maker.

I have always sympathized with Cuban Americans who suffered repression under the Castro regime. And I have no love of communists because it was a communist soldier who shot me in combat on November 30, 1950, during the Korean War. I have often said that no head of state should hold office nearly 50 years, as President Castro has. But I can't believe it's right in the eyes of God to rejoice over the death of another human being, even my enemy. I was so revolted by the behavior of my fellow Americans in Miami that I wrote a letter to President Castro expressing my sympathy and offering an apology for my countrymen's heartless celebration.

The sad fact is that much of the harsh feelings harbored by some people in Miami are like ancient feuds between families. They hold on tight to the anger, even if the reasons are forgotten. I once met a young man who said he admired my work in Congress, except for my position on lifting the embargo against Cuba. When I asked why, he told me that he had been told by his grandparents since childhood that Castro had stolen all of their property. I asked, What property? He said he didn't know. I pressed on: How much land, where was it, what was its value? He couldn't answer. Frustrated, the young man walked off saying, "We've got to end this conversation because you're causing me to lose my inheritance."

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