For the past two months there scarcely has passed more than a day that Cuba hasn’t been in the news. The highly covered visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island the last week of March drew more attention than any papal visits in the recent past. The VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia turned out to be an unmitigated diplomatic failure that witnessed every other nation present to disagree with president Obama and his Canadian counterpart that Cuba should be denied the right to represent itself. Three weeks ago several Cuban academics were denied visas that would allow them to attend the LASA (Latin American Studies Association) Conference in San Francisco. Just two weeks ago, representative David Rivera (R-Fl) introduced an amendment to H.R. 2831 to modify the requirement for a Cuban national to qualify for and maintain status as a permanent resident of the US in order to restrict his/her right to visit Cuba.
Events like these, resulting from following a fifty-year policy of embargo, have functioned as the impetus for a small group of people to stand up and exercise our rights to petition our government for a different stance towards Cuba. On April 16 and 17th a group of concerned Cuban-American and American professionals met with members of Congress, the US State Department, and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington in order to lobby for more engagement between the governments and peoples of the United States and Cuba. The Latin American Working Group (LAWG) and Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) graciously facilitated our lobbying effort. Both of these organizations have advocated for a policy of engagement between the two nations and their expertise and hospitality were an invaluable part of our sojourn to Washington.
Apart from calling for more engagement, our main objective was to express the fact that the Cuban-American community projects a plurality of opinions pertaining to US-Cuba relations and a growing majority of these citizens differ greatly from the hard-line positions of isolationism taken by the Cuban-American congressional cabal consisting of Marco Rubio, David Rivera, Albio Sires, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Bob Menendez and Mario Diaz-Balart.
During our meetings with legislators and officials of the US government we not only expressed our objection to the misrepresentation of the Cuban-American community by the aforementioned Cuban-Americans in Congress, but we also offered our services as a knowledgeable counter-balance to the narrative that has been constructed by proponents of the embargo for the past fifty years. The mythology created by the spurious claims and denunciations by members of the Cuban exile community in southern Florida and by American politicians and citizens who are in favor of the perpetuation of this blockade needs to be refuted. It is our goal to deconstruct these myths and present our nation’s lawmakers and citizens with a more accurate description of conditions, and more importantly, the possibilities that abound in Cuba. We believe that any form of reconciliation, let alone normalization, between the US and Cuba must be based in honesty and mutual respect. The first important step towards such an outcome is to present an accurate description of Cuba to the American populace and its duly elected officials.
After visiting Washington and talking to legislators, officials, congressional staff members, academics, and members of various organizations involved in shaping policy we came to the conclusion that we need to continue to lobby our government for more engagement with Cuba and this would require us to organize our group more formally. We adopted the name CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement) and began to receive positive feedback from Cuban-Americans, Cubans residing internationally, and Americans of all stripes who are fed up with fifty years of wasted opportunities. Our goals involve continued lobbying of the governments of both nations for more engagement and to promote a culture of reason and openness in this nation’s political forums with respect to US-Cuba relations.
The first legislator that CAFE met with was representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts’ 3rd district (D). This Washington veteran has been to Cuba numerous times since his first visit in 1979. He has consistently argued for an end to the embargo while finding ways to build bridges between the two estranged nations. His involvement in efforts to restore Finca Vigía , Ernest Hemmingway’s Cuban home that was left to the Cuban people by Hemmingway’s widow, has resulted in a collaboration of American and Cuban scholars and curators in maintaining the author’s home-turned-museum outside of Havana.
The district he represents is also home to some of the leading medical research and pharmacological centers in the US and he has advocated for more collaboration with Cuban medical researchers and developers in this field. Despite the hardships associated with the embargo Cuban medical technicians and innovators have been able to produce an enviable amount of vaccines and technologies that are used in other parts of the developed world besides the US. Advances in vaccines for various disorders such as meningitis-B, heart disease, hepatitis-B, and sickle cell disease have been unavailable to sick Americans because of our retrograde policy towards Cuba. New technologies in prenatal care developed in Cuba are available in Canada, the UK, and several other developed countries but no American will benefit from them directly as our government is unwilling to understand that a policy of engagement with Cuba would be beneficial for the citizens of both countries.
In our meeting with McGovern he told us that “…what happens after this election…. is going to be absolutely key in terms of what our future policy towards Cuba is. I believe deep down in his soul that Obama knows that our policy is wrong, knows that it doesn’t do anything to help the people of Cuba, and certainly doesn’t do anything to help the people of the United States.”
He also stated the fact that because of the position that US-Cuba relations occupies in the minds of some voters in Florida and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey, Cuba is more of a “…domestic issue than a foreign policy issue.”
McGovern’s words confirms the sentiments among rational Cuban-Americans and Americans alike that this small but vocal minority has been able to pervert the democratic process in this country by always holding Florida’s electoral college votes in a perpetual state of hijack. There is no more compelling a reason to abandon the electoral college than the impasse caused by the embargo. Every four years candidates from both parties try to upstage their counterpart by taking a hard-line stance on Cuba simply to curry favor with what is perceived to be the predominate voting block in the “swing” state of Florida.
Miami Mythology and a Coalition of the “willing”
The willingness to perpetuate the myths associated with Cuba can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, and probably most concerning, is the stranglehold that has been placed on the US government and the nation’s servile corporate media by an ever decreasing Cuban exile community in southern Florida. Their intolerance of anything associated with the Cuban revolution has given birth to a culture of violence and censorship that has plagued Miami and the region for five decades. Individuals such as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, who have been both accused and convicted respectively as international terrorists, have been beatified as patron saints of the right-wing Cuban exile community’s creed of intolerance and terror. Inversely, any individual or group from within the Cuban diaspora, or anybody else, who is willing to seek dialogue with the reviled Castro regime have been demonized and targeted with either extreme violence or vicious campaigns of character assassination and censure. Such vitriol has been channeled into a body politic and the representatives who have come out of this community have truly done the most damage.
Although Marco Rubio’s first trip ever to Cuba was last week, it was just to visit the US Naval base at Guantanamo, which is technically Cuba but territory that falls under American jurisdiction. However, he frequently paints himself as an expert on Cuba. Rather than visit the island of his ancestors to learn about the culture and circumstances of Cubans he went to the Guantanamo detention center to revue the tribunals set up to prosecute the “enemy combatants” held there. Rubio, like nearly all of the reactionary Cuban exile community in Miami, considers himself an expert on Cuba while not bothering to educate himself about the reality of Cubans. This arrogant attitude was on display when he spoke to the Heritage Foundation in March. When asked about the Cuban government and the reforms in place he repeatedly told Wall Street Journal reporter Mary O’Grady “You don’t know who these people are.” Neither does he.
Instead of engaging Cuba in a constructive manner to try and tackle the very real problems that are prevalent on the island, Rubio and his cohorts that constitute the Cuban-American congressional cabal are all too willing to perpetuate myths about Cuba for political gain. O’Grady’s willingness to have her queries be dismissed by the senator is yet another example of how the media in this country are complicit with the failings of our government’s foreign and domestic policy. In most accounts of stories regarding Cuba the American mainstream media has regrettably regurgitated the same tired memes that it has used for the past fifty years when describing the island nation and its circumstances.
Unfortunately, these myths have become part of the fabric of our nation’s understanding of Cuba. Jim McGovern related to us in our meeting that during the process of restoring the Hemmingway house that there had arisen some problems in granting licenses to a few architects. McGovern was told that senator John McCain (R-AZ) was a Hemingway fan and the congressman decided to pay a visit to the future presidential nominee to ask for support in this issue. After informing the senator of the problem McCain began by asking McGovern if he knew that every teenager in Cuba is forced into prostitution by the government. In McGovern’s words McCain continued to say that when “…you arrive at Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport you are usually greeted by a prostitute.” When McGovern said that he had visited the island many times and he had never been propositioned McCain became somewhat belligerent. With disinformation like that it is easy to see how McCain ended up picking Sarah Palin as his running mate! All joking aside, it is a sad indictment on McCain and many other high-ranking officials of the US government who continue to be led by lies and myths about Cuba in order to continue with a counterproductive embargo.
US State Department’s definition of “abuse”
As we met with members of the Cuba desk in the US State Department we expressed to the officials that we disagree with the premise of any policy based in the Helms-Burton Act. Members of CAFE have opposed and continue to oppose any narrow interpretation of democracy promotion as an instrument of regime change. We reject any interpretation of people-to-people contact that restrains the true nature of these trips. This narrow interpretation hinders legitimate means of information exchange between different communities in Cuba and the US.
The officials at the State Department were more concerned in warning us that “abuses” committed by Americans who had visited the island threatened the entire policy of “people-to-people” exchanges in academic, cultural, and educational fields that Obama has reinstated. Here are some examples of what the State Department classify as abuses: When a professor goes to speak in Havana and then decides that after a week of lecturing he would like to spend an afternoon at the beach that is considered an “abuse.” If a member of a group that goes to a papal visit decides that they would like to “lose their religion” and go have fun and dance to a timba band in a nightclub or festival then they are committing an “abuse”. If a politician like former congressman Joe Moakley wants to stop at a cigar factory on a fact-finding trip to Cuba this is considered an “abuse”. (True story.) If an American befriends some Cubans or any foreigner from anywhere else in the entire world, including Canada, and wants to invite them to dinner and spends more than $170 on a meal or entertainment than that is an “abuse”.
Ironically, at the same time that the members of the State Department were trying to impress upon us the seriousness of these abuses, their boss, Hillary Clinton, was photographed en plena rumba in a Cuban-themed nightclub in Cartagena called Havana. Had she have experienced the real thing in Havana she would have committed an abuse. Whereas if she dons a tee-shirt with Che Guevara, drinks a bottle of Havana Club, smokes a Cuban cigar, buys a round for everybody present on the US taxpayers dime, and sings all of the coros to Los Van Van’s Sandunguera on the dance floor in Colombia, or for that matter China, than that is considered to be completely within the bounds of the regulations.
Any of the aforementioned activities can hardly be called abuses by the estimation of the members of CAFE. They are minor infractions of a ridiculous code of sanctions that frankly do not promote either democracy or common sense. The hypocrisy of the US government, a conglomerate of free-trade-pushing, open-market-championing, rapacious-consumerism-promoting interests, which discourages its own citizens in contributing to a nascent mixed economy in a traditionally closed market would be laughable if it were not so sad.
This perversion of language was part of David Rivera’s opening statement on May 31 at a hearing about H.R. 2831 by the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement of the House Judiciary Committee:
“Unfortunately, abuse and manipulation is exactly what has occurred in recent years. Because of these abuses, and in order to preserve and protect the benefits of the Cuban Adjustment Act for future Cuban asylum seekers, the time has come to adjust the Cuban Adjustment Act.”
In other words, if you are a Cuban national who has left Cuba because you felt persecuted and you return to Cuba because your mother or father dies before you are granted citizenship than your US residency will be revoked. This separation of the Cuban family is unacceptable to CAFE and we oppose any attempt by any member of Congress, regardless of their heritage, to continue the draconian policy of keeping the Cuban family apart. We implore all Cuban-Americans and the American populace in general to not allow a few recalcitrant members of Congress to do any further harm to our divided family. It is time for a change and we urge you to contact your local representative and tell them that our policy with Cuba is untenable, unconstitutional, and un-American.
Benjamin Willis is a musician living in Queens and is a founding member of CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org