For 54 years the United States has waged war against Cuba, in a futile effort to strangle and starve the Cuban population into mutiny against the Revolution. Ten different presidents tried to asphyxiate Cuba, by blockading the island, causing suffering, as well as human and financial loss in the billions of dollars. Now things appear to be changing. President Barack Obama, the 11th US President since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, seems intent on changing Washington’s strategy for dealing with Cuba.
On December 17 of last year, President Obama began building a bridge between the two countries. The first stone he laid at the base of the bridge was to free Gerardo, Ramón and Tony from US jails, where they had been unjustly held for over sixteen years. He also used his presidential authority to issue licenses to poke holes into the blockade.
Yet the bridge is still under construction. Each of us is helping to build it: stone by stone. Many of us want a friendship bridge that would bring the two nations together. Some want simply to flood the island with consumer goods that will yield enormous profits for American corporations. Others see it as a way to hasten the demise of socialism in Cuba.
But have no doubts. Just as Cuba learned to defend itself from foreign military incursions, terrorism, biological warfare and a brutal blockade for over five decades, the Revolution will learn to defend itself from those who would now want to cross a newly built bridge across the Florida straights with foul schemes against Cuba.
There is a lot of work to be done here—on this side of the bridge. The blockade is still in place, and only the United States Congress can overturn it. We need to reach out to Americans of good faith to help us convince the Congress to do just that.
However, there is also a lot that the President can do. He has already done some very important things. He knows that to build steel bridges, we must first build people bridges. When Americans travel to Cuba and meet Cubans on the island, they make friends. Some of those friendships become lasting friendships, and some collaborate to create projects that benefit both countries. So President Obama changed the regulations and granted a general license for people to people travel to the island.
Some of the changes announced by the Obama Administration include an increase in the amount of remittances allowed, licenses to trade with the private sector in Cuba, allowing travel agents and airlines to provide authorized travel to Cuba, permitting US insurance companies to provide coverage for health, life and travel to the island, an OFAC general license will facilitate the establishment of commercial telecommunications facilities, authorizing the commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices and related software, permitting the use of certain American credit cards in Cuba, heck we can now bring back $100 worth of the finest cigars in the world. All of this, President Obama announced last December 17th.
The 20th of July saw diplomatic relations restored between the United States and Cuba, but the bridge between the two nations will not be finished until there are truly normal relations. Relations cannot be normal as long as the economic, financial and commercial blockade against Cuba remains in place.
But the blockade has not deterred each side from building a bridge across the troubled waters of US-Cuba relations. The work continues. In the coming weeks and months, there will be bilateral talks on issues such as the environment, the natural disasters, health, civil aviation, drug trafficking, copyrights, patents, and one of the thorniest of all issues: compensation. The US claims that Cuba ought compensate US companies that were nationalized after the triumph of the Revolution, and Cuba claims to be entitled to compensation for the damages caused by the US blockade against the island: fifteen years ago, Cuba calculated those amounts to be $121 billion in economic damages and $181 billion in human damages.
Things are moving in a positive direction. We welcome President Obama’s call that Congress lifts the blockade and his discretionary use of presidential authority to try and turn the blockade into Swiss cheese. But we need to hold President Obama´s feet to the fire to make sure that he continues to move forward towards full normalization. We also need to make sure that the bully tactics of Cuban-American politicians who oppose the lifting of the blockade do not continue to intimidate today’s Congressmen and Senators.
Learn from history. Past attempts to improve relations failed because of the many traps purposely laid along the way. Those who oppose normalization, whether in Langley, Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon or Miami, have historically conjured up ways to impede normalization. The downing of a Cuban passenger plane in 1976 by Luis Posada Carriles was an effort by Cuban-American terrorists and others in Washington to scuttle the secret negotiations that were ongoing between the Ford Administration and Cuba. Another weapon of choice that some in Washington have used historically to stymie normalization is mendacity: the lies that US State Department officials fed newspapers about the alleged Cuban role in the Shaba II military incursion in Angola, the myth of the Soviet “Combat” Brigade in Cuba, and the boldfaced lies of Under Secretary of State, John Bolton, who claimed in 2002 that Cuba was making weapons of mass destruction (i.e., biological weapons) on the island. A pathology of power permeates this country.
We have to be on guard. We need to learn to defend this bridge, as it will inevitably come under attack. There’s an election coming up in this country, and we don’t know who will become President. Some of the Presidential candidates and some congressmen would love to see the movement toward normalization with Cuba blow up like the bridge over the river Kwai. We cannot let this happen. This bridge is Cuba’s new fortress. We need to be its soldiers.
As José Martí wrote, “bridges are the fortresses of the modern world. Better to bring cities together than to cleave human chests. Today, all men are called upon to be soldiers of the bridge.”
José Pertierra delivered these remarks on December 18, 2015 at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. at a conference entitled “The Impact of the US Blockade Against Cuba”