Building a bridge to Cuba

Although the news wasn’t a surprise, I was heartened to hear President Obama announce the formal re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba. This breakthrough came after months of secret talks between the nations followed by his acknowledgement last December that the relationship between the two countries was headed for a profound change. This Monday, the Cuban flag was raised over the country’s newly restored embassy in Washington, DC.

In 1961, the United States enacted an economic embargo with the explicit purpose of ousting the Castro regime. The sanctions were tightened even further in 1996, again in an effort to unseat Castro. History has shown us that these restrictions haven’t attained their goals; the Castros are still in power and democracy has eluded the island’s citizens.

Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as "The great homeland that grows."
Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as “The great homeland that grows”

Although past U.S. administrations have sought to moderate or remove the sanctions, politics has, until now, stymied any efforts. Politicians seeking the votes of the large population of Cuban exiles in the swing state of Florida have been unwilling to support any changes.

There are many reasons why what seemed impossible before, now appears to be happening. For Cuba, their two main benefactors, first, the Soviet Union and then, Venezuela, imploded, leaving the government without critical economic support. Tourism, trade, and investments from the United States will offer them much-needed monetary infusions. For the U.S., not only have the sanctions failed to oust the Castro regime, but they have severely constrained our country’s trade and foreign policy options. In addition, with an agreement, the Cuban government will lose a powerful scapegoat. No longer will they be able to blame their failed economics on the policies of the United States.

Demographics have also played a big role in the softening of the stance of both countries. The Castro brothers are now in their eighties and soon these powerful symbols of the revolution will be gone. In addition, the original exiles – the most vocal opponents to any change – are also aging, and younger Cuban-Americans are more open to removing the restrictions of the embargo. Although no one believes that Cuba will instantly become a bastion of human rights and democracy, it will be hard for their government to maintain its current policies when there is more freedom of communication, travel, and commerce.

Cuba's famous Malecon at sunset
Cuba’s famous Malecon at sunset

When my husband and I traveled to Cuba earlier this year (you can read about our journey here, here, and here), we found a country hungry for change. The Cubans we talked to (and there appeared to be little or no restrictions on our interactions) were friendly, welcoming, and eager to engage with Americans. Despite – and maybe because of – the hardships they face, many have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. They are also very proud of their country. Cuba has a 96% literacy rate and their citizens enjoy free education and healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba’s water quality is among the best in the world, as is its citizens’ nutrition levels, health, and life expectancy.

Cubans are also very proud of their medical system. Cuban doctors are highly trained and their skills are in demand around the world. In fact, some 50,000 Cuban medical workers have been deployed in over 66 nations. That, of course, hasn’t included the United States, but maybe that could change. There has been a lot of concern lately about the dearth of general practice physicians here in the US. As the Baby Boomer population ages, more and more medical care will be needed. In addition, now that healthcare is more widely available through the Affordable Care Act, we need more doctors to provide care.

I know that there are many who feel that the sanctions should remain and that formally re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba sends the wrong signal. I, on the other hand, think it’s time to admit that our half-century estrangement hasn’t yielded the results we wanted and has actually produced many unintended negative consequences.

Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana's buildings are at risk of collapsing
Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana’s buildings are at risk of collapsing

By joining the rest of the world and opening up relations with Cuba, we can start a dialog that could result in increased freedom for their people. It might also mean that we could help satisfy our growing need for doctors by inviting members of their highly-trained medical establishment to practice here. Wouldn’t that be better than to continue a failed policy which, after more than 50 years, has yet to show any positive results?