By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
Ironic, isn’t it, that Republican officials in Alabama are now lobbying for lifting the economic and travel embargo on Cuba?
The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has thus far refused to do so, despite growing calls for the country to ditch the failed policy.
Still, good for those state leaders who launched the Engage Cuba Alabama State Council in Mobile on Tuesday.
To continue the embargo and travel restrictions is crazy. Americans can travel to North Korea and Vietnam. They regularly travel to communist China. We have robust trade with China and Vietnam.
But we continue the wrongheaded isolation of Cuba, which is about 90 miles off the southern Florida coast.
In a word: Crazy.
I’ve traveled to Cuba 12 times as a journalist, the most recent time in 2013. More than 50 years of embargo has done nothing to change Cuba’s regime. The embargo only hurts the ordinary Cuban people, most of whom, by the way, love Americans.
They don’t want to see unfettered capitalism that creates a few winners and many losers, but they do want to improve their lot. And they want to eat.
Fidel Castro was supposedly asked once what were the three greatest successes of socialism: Education, medicine and athletics, El Jefe responded. When asked about the three greatest failures, Castro responded: Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Maybe Castro never said that, but it’s the truth. Cuba is a country with much higher literacy rates than the United States.
Cuban medicine, while lacking some of the technology we take for granted here, is strong. Indeed, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Castro offered to send 100 disaster doctors to help with the recovery. President George W. Bush turned Castro down.
And, of course, Cuban athletes, from boxers to baseball players are among the world’s best.
In my trips to Cuba, I stayed away from politics as much as possible. I traveled there most times with a team from Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. We didn’t go to evangelize bu
t, rather, to be mules: We hauled stuff Cubans had a hard time getting because of the embargo – medicines, glasses, sometimes clothes, car parts.
And contrary to some myths, Cubans of faith are allowed to practice their religions openly. It wasn’t always that way, but since the last 1980s, Cuban churches and synagogues – from Catholic to Baptist to Presbyterian to Jewish. Just about every faith is represented. A Mosque is under construction, and Muslims meet in specially designated prayer rooms.
We also traveled across the island freely, without being harassed by government or police. And I always had my passport stamped at immigration, because I wasn’t going to hide my trips. Beaver Dam Baptist Church had a U.S. Treasury license to travel to Cuba; journalists are exempt from the travel ban.
The opportunity open for Alabama, from shipping, agriculture and tourism, is huge. We’re strategically located close to Cuba and we have, in the past under humanitarian exceptions to the embargo, shipped everything from poultry to telephone poles to the island. But Bush refused to allow companies to extend credit to Cuba, so much of the exports dried up.
Demands by Republicans that the Cuban government must change before the embargo is lifted are hypocritical. We freely trade with other foreign governments who are socialist or have serious human rights issues. Again, China and Vietnam come to mind.
Cuba is a beautiful country, and Havana is one of the great cities. No doubt the island would be a tourist magnet.
But the United States’ stubborn pride is in the way.
It’s way past time for the United States to stop that arrogance. The Cuban people are resourceful and smart. Over the past few years, the Cuban government has allowed ordinary Cubans to start their own businesses. They can buy and sell property on a limited basis.
On one of our trips to Cuba, Beaver Dam Baptist Church actually bought a small farm for a church in Pinar del Rio.
The U.S. government shouldn’t be telling Alabama businesses and tourists where they can trade and travel.
Congratulations to the officials who are encouraging Congress to lift the embargo. Best of luck to them. There are many products produced in Alabama that the Cubans can use.
Lifting the embargo is a win-win for both the United States and Cuba. Let’s do it.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected].