This week I'd originally planned on writing about my initial impressions of Cuba after my first people-to-people tour experience back in May/June of 2012. However, given the historical shift in US/Cuba relations last week, there's simply no way I can resist the urge to add my two cents. However, before I dive into last week's historical developments, I'd like to sincerely thank those of you who actually took the time to read my first blog post. I'd also like to add, in an interesting turn of events, that group did NOT include my own Mother. Yes, it's true, the one person on Earth I thought I could count on to read my first blog post apparently had more important things to do (she's retired btw). When I asked her (somewhat excitedly/nervously) what she thought of my first blog post, she looked at me like I'd asked her to recite the square root of Pi. Talk about an awesome boost of confidence. Muchas gracias Madre. That's okay though, because this week I've decided to print out my first two blog posts and put them in her Christmas card. Feliz Navidad Madre. Anyway, I digress ... on to the events of last week.
Wow, just wow. Those were the first thoughts that crossed my mind immediately after learning of the historical developments of last Wednesday, December 17, 2014. Although I knew from multiple sources that President Obama would likely do something pertaining to Cuba (via his Executive Powers) before leaving office, I honestly didn't expect it to happen this soon. By the way, when I say "I knew from multiple sources," I don't mean to imply in any way that I'm either cool or connected, I'm just a nerd that reads anything I can get my hands on pertaining to Cuba, and I'd read several pieces that discussed President Obama's desire to address US/Cuba relations.
My second thought was a sense of almost overwhelming happiness for the Cuba citizens (more on that later). In case anyone wonders where I stand on normalizing relations with Cuba (and ending the embargo), let me state (with the UTMOST RESPECT for Cuban Americans & Cuban Exiles) that I 100% support President Obama's move towards normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. I also 100% support an immediate end to the Cuban Embargo. I could go on for days as to why I feel this way (and nobody wants that), so I'll just briefly state that our (the United States') relationship/policy when it comes to Cuba has never really made much sense to me. Someone once said (and I'm paraphrasing), when it comes to our foreign policy decisions pertaining to Cuba, the US seems to have lost its mind. They were implying that, for whatever reasons, the US has consistently bungled its policy decisions involving Cuba going back decades. Although I'm no policy expert, I couldn't agree more with that line of thought. For example, I've never understood our willingness to (re)establish diplomatic relations with the likes of Vietnam, China, Burma, Venezuela, Iraq, and so on, but yet, not Cuba. This is just my opinion, but, when it comes to Cuba, it seems like the US has often played the role of the spoiled kid in the sandbox who doesn't get his way, so he decides to pick up his ball and go home. I understand US/Cuba policy is extremely complex, and by no means am I implying the US is solely to fault when it comes to our past issues with Cuba, I also understand there are many, many issues left to be resolved between our two countries. It's just I've never understood why the US hasn't made more of an effort to engage Cuba with the same respect we've shown other countries (including countries we've had issues with in the past). Now, I'm not completely naive, I know the main reason comes down to one word ... politics ... but, it still never really made sense to me. So, I'm absolutely thrilled that both the US & Cuba have taken such a huge positive step towards normalizing diplomatic relations.
My third thought upon hearing the news was, boy, I bet the likes of Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Mario Diaz-Balart (R, FL 25th), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, FL 27th) are gonna be PISSED. That was a no-brainer given their well-documented positions on US/Cuba relations. As they've stated many times (and then re-stated within seconds of President Obama's press conference last week), they're going to do everything in their collective power (and they've got some serious political sway) to reverse/block/defeat President Obama's policy shift on Cuba. Now, let me be 100% clear here, while I strongly disagree with their collective opinions on US/Cuba policy/relations, I also strongly respect their collective rights to those opinions. I also want to point out that I'm not Cuban. I'm not even Cuban-American. So, my opinions on Cuba are coming from an entirely different place than those mentioned above. For example, never in my life have I (nor any member of my family) been negatively impacted by a single act of the Castro Regime (unless you count the CIA-like inspections the security guards do of my camera bag/gear at the airport in Havana). Also, I've never had property/bank accounts of mine confiscated by the Castro Regime, I've never had a family member killed/tortured/imprisoned by the Castro Regime, and I've never been exiled from my home country/family because of the Castro Regime. As such, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I 100% respect all others (including those named above) who have opposite opinions from mine relative to US/Cuba relations. It comes down to this for me ....The only shoes I've ever walked in are my own, so I can only speak from my own personal experiences.
Now I'd like to elaborate on my second thought above after hearing the historical news last week. That thought was overwhelming happiness for the Cuban citizens. Having visited Cuba so many times in the last couple of years, I can unequivocally state that the average Cuban citizen deserves SO MUCH BETTER than their current situation. Unless you actually travel to Cuba and see it with your own eyes, it's almost impossible to describe how difficult an average day can be for Cuban citizens. The best way to describe it is that every single day for the average Cuban citizen is a flat-out grind. All of the things I so often take for granted rarely come easy (if they ever come at all) for the average Cuban citizen. This is especially true when it comes to food (they still use ration cards ... ration cards!), clothing (I can't begin to tell you how many Cuban kids I see going shirtless/shoeless, and not by choice), shelter (you simply wouldn't believe the poor structural conditions of so many of the homes, it's unreal), and public transportation (ask any Cuban about the insane bus lines/queues). It's because of these surreal things I've seen and witnessed first-hand in Cuba that I feel so strongly about normalizing our diplomatic relationship with Cuba and ending the embargo.
I understand the argument that normalization of diplomatic relations and/or ending the embargo will lead to more money in the hands of the Castro Regime (no doubt, it will). However, at least SOME of that money WILL trickle down to the average Cuban citizen. The best jobs for Cubans are any jobs that allow for the possibility of gratuities. That's why you see so many doctors/engineers/architects driving cabs & tending bar in Havana. That's why restaurant/hotel jobs are so coveted by Cubans. It's my understanding the average Cuban earns a MONTHY salary roughly equivalent to $24 US dollars. Yes, $24 US dollars a MONTH (roughly $288 US dollars annually). So, any job in which a Cuban can earn a gratuity can absolutely change their lives immensely. From there, it's common sense ... If the embargo is lifted, you're looking at an estimated annual increase in US tourists traveling to Cuba from roughly 100,000 a year now to roughly 2,000,000 a year. That type of increase in tourism equals more jobs for Cuban citizens in the tourism industry (if nothing else, out of pure necessity). Will the majority of that money end up in the hands of the Castro Regime? Yes. However, will some of that money also trickle down to the average Cuban citizen? Absolutely. Simply put, ending the embargo will help better the lives of the average Cuban citizen, and I'm all for that.
I know I've said it before, but it's worth repeating ... The Cuban citizens I've met have been, to the person, intelligent, kind, good, hospitable people. In all my travels to Cuba, I've yet to meet a Cuban citizen that's had one negative thing to say about the US and/or Americans. To the contrary, their faces ALWAYS light up when I tell them I'm from the "Estados Unidos" (apparently I give off a Canadian and/or German vibe, because those are the two nationalities most Cubans think I am ... my apologies in advance btw to both Canada & Germany for that). However, when they learn I'm from the US, they instantly want to engage me in conversation about ANYTHING related to the US. I can honestly say, in all my experiences talking with Cuban citizens in the streets, almost every person I've spoken with has shown (without an ulterior motive) a genuine interest in, and affection for, Americans. Now, I'm not a total idiot, I'm certain there are Cubans out there that surely dislike both the US & Americans, it's just I've yet to meet one, and that's the absolute truth.
In summary, if normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba (and ultimately ending the embargo) will help the average Cuban citizen (and it will), I'm all for it. What's that? You say ending the embargo will only help keep the Castro Regime in power? Last time I checked, the Castro Regime has been in control of Cuba since January 1, 1959. Also, last time I checked, the embargo has been in place since 1960 (in full effect since 1962). Enough is enough. So, even if it's just to yourself when no one else is listening, it's time to admit that the embargo has been a complete and utter FAILURE as a means of toppling the Castro Regime (in fact, many would argue it's had the opposite effect). History has PROVEN the embargo has been a failure. The Cuban Embargo has now been in place for 54 years. I honestly don't understand how any logical/objective person can continue to argue in good faith that the embargo has (in any way) helped remove the Castro Regime from power. Given what 54 years of history have clearly shown us, my question to the pro-embargo crowd is simple ... How much longer must the average Cuban citizen suffer? ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.