By RUFUS G.W. SANDERS, Register columnist
In March 2000 I went to Cuba. I was part of a trip organized for college professors to study the social and political institutions of the island nation. Because of the almost 50-year embargo by the United States against Cuba and governmental restrictions of travel by Americans visiting the nation, I had to leave from Canada. So after spending a day in Toronto I flew with a group of other economists, political scientists, one politician, sociologists and other university types into Havana. I toured communal tobacco and sugar cane farms. I spent time at the University of Havana. I met with representatives from the Cuban State Department, and with members of the National Assembly. I ate in homes of regular Cuban families. I talked and walked freely throughout Havana. I asked what I pleased of whomever I wished. I was convinced, like the president is now, that Cuba is not the communistic monster that it was more than 50 years ago and that the anti-Castro segment of the Cuban-American community, and the right wing of the conservative American political machine, would have us believe. The other thing I was convinced of, like the president is now, is the American embargo against the Cuban people is one of the most inhumane acts perpetrated against a people by a Democratic state in a long time.
The one thing that impressed me immensely was although the Cuban people have suffered profusely because of the embargo, their indomitable spirit of optimism has been stunning. And much to the chagrin of American supporters of social isolation, economic intimidation, political domination and psychological imperialism, these people continued to survive, and defy the mighty American empire. Now finally we have a president who is ready to take a stand in ending what started out as a legitimate battle against communism in our hemisphere but ended as the fiasco it had become of the last half century.
The Cuban "Make-Do-Spirit" has been remarkable, from the use of 50-year-old American and Russian cars to the creation of its own unique form of public transportation -- buses made from welded-together semi trailers.
Although there was nothing close to the poverty levels I have seen through my travels to Haiti, West Africa and some parts of Mexico, the people in Cuba are still suffering seriously from the effects of the embargo.
President Obama is calling this ongoing situation "the tragedy just 90 miles from our shores." And he is now calling for opening the doors of communication and cooperation. He said Friday the United States is ready to engage with the Cuban government, but cautioned the country would not simply talk for the sake of talking. He wants to talk with Cuban leaders about human rights, democratic reform and economic issues. To the surprise of many, Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, is saying that he is ready to talk, listen and even end this foolishness that has gone on far to long. President Obama had already announced eased restrictions on travel and finances to Cuba.
It's the failure of both communism and the American embargo that has caused the continued unstable situation between the Cuban Republic and the United States. When I was in Cuba, I saw no cops roaming the streets with military like assault weapons like have seen in the streets of Acapulco, Cancun or even Rome. There were no curfews, no stopping of people, checking of papers. I walked the streets of Havana's barrios without supervision and fear. I actually felt safer than I have felt in many American cities, including Little Havana in Miami.
The city of Havana, once the shining star of the Caribbean, is in danger of crumbling from the face of the earth. The infrastructure is literally deteriorating. Once elegant, almost palatial building with magnificent facades now lay in ruins.
Yes, I heard from those who despised communism. They spoke candidly and despairingly about the Castro administration; but all still considered him an icon with high ideas. While the ideas of communism are grand and visionary, in a romantic kind of way, it is a proven fact they just don't work without infusions of capitalism and democracy.
After being in Cuba, I was convinced as the government is finally coming around to seeing that the only humane way to help the Cuban people and end communism at the same time, is to pump dollars into the Cuban economy move toward a more respectful relationship with the Castro brothers, and end the preferential treatment of Cuban immigrants and anti-Castro forces in the Cuban-American community, especially in Miami. The dialogue and statements that are being made by President Obama and President Castro have given America the chance, opportunity, and even the excuse to become a nation that not only believes in human rights, but one who practices them as well.
The picture of the early century will be taken soon. It will be of President Obama meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana, ending old 20th-century democracy and issuing in a new era of freedom, liberty and justice that is based in humanitarianism.