Monday, May 20, 2013

What Cuba taught me

Amy Truax, Northwest Field Organizer at Witness for Peace

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund designated Cuba as the "only sustainable country in the world," noting that if everyone on Earth lived as Cubans did, we would only need one planet to sustain us--as opposed to the over four planets we'd need if we continue consuming as people in the United States do. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, and 85% of Cuban foreign trade disappeared nearly overnight, Cuba had to completely re-invent their agricultural and food systems. Through necessity, they developed a predominantly organic, sustainable, local system of food production that didn't rely on expensive, or non-existent, petroleum imports. Over the last 20 years, they've learned a lot of lessons that many other countries could benefit from as we struggle to create more a more sustainable world. However, due to archaic Cold War policies like the Cuba travel ban, keeping Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the embargo, the US is largely missing out on this opportunity.

I recently returned from a 14 person, 10-day delegation to Cuba that was focused on sustainable agriculture. Getting there was a complicated process involving a lot of paperwork that seemed humorously out of proportion to the quick 45-minute flight from Miami to Havana. I traveled through a non-profit called Witness for Peace that has a People-to-People license allowing group travel to Cuba, which is one of the only ways US citizens can legally travel there. The Kennedy government instituted a travel ban in 1963, in the tense and confusing time after the Cuban revolution and the missile crisis. To this day, the tiny nation of Cuba is the only country in the world that the United States restricts its citizens from visiting. In poll after poll, a majority of Americans do not support such a policy. Yet due to outdated and reactionary politics, heavily dominated by a few Cuban-American hardliners from the ever-important swing state of Florida, the idea of even revisiting travel regulations seems impossible.

While in Havana, my group visited the US Interests Section, which is similar to an embassy (but not legally an embassy since we don't technically have diplomatic relations). We had a chance to spend an hour talking with a US official about US/Cuban relations. For many questions we asked, I was able to see his perspective and understand where he was coming from, even if I didn't agree with him. However, when we questioned him on the travel ban, logic seemed to fall apart and we got no satisfactory answers about the purpose of continuing to restrict the liberty of US citizens to travel freely.  Many people decry human rights abuses and political repression. This is certainly an issue that anyone who travels to Cuba should be aware of and concerned about. Yet surely you couldn't argue that violent dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe do not also abuse human rights, so why can we hop on a plane to Riyadh? The old rallying cry against Communism also falls flat when we have such a vital relationship with China and are negotiating trade agreements with Vietnam--a country in which we fought a long and bloody war in an attempt to prevent Communism, but place no travel restrictions on. No one would ever dream of prohibiting travel to the heavily Socialist Scandinavian countries. Given that three million tourists visited Cuba in 2012 from every other country in the world, we can probably give up the pretense of trying to damage their economy.

Cuba isn't perfect. There are serious human rights concerns, there is no free press, and other issues to be aware of if you choose to visit. However, there are also lessons that we can learn, and that we could teach them, in a free and open exchange of people, technology, and knowledge. It is no longer the job of the United States government to tell US citizens where they can and cannot travel--we should be allowed to make these decisions of our own free will.

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