By Mark McDermott
I recently spent 10 days in Cuba as part of a delegation led by Witness for Peace (WFP), a politically independent, nationwide grassroots organization of people committed to nonviolence and led by faith and conscience. Its mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Before I went, I checked out Cuba on the CIA and World Bank websites. The national income per person in the U.S. is 8 times higher than Cuba’s. Life expectancy in Cuba and the U.S. are identical. The CIA says a child born in Cuba has a 20% better chance of surviving than one born in the U.S. Why?
Our country invaded Cuba in 1898, 1906, 1912 and 1961. We supported brutal military dictators for decades while they maintained a “great investment climate for U.S. corporations.” I went to Cuba because my government has been waging an economic, political and diplomatic war (the Embargo) against this small country for 50+ years. I wanted to see Cuba for myself and form my own opinions about our nation’s policies toward Cuba.
Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans cannot legally visit as tourists. North Korea, Iran, Iraq, China, Afghanistan and Sudan – fine. Anywhere but Cuba. If you or I went to Cuba as a tourist and spent any money, we would be guilty of a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine and civil fines of up to $65,000. With very few exceptions, Americans can only go to Cuba by joining a delegation led by an organization licensed by the State Department. Our license request took 16 months. Why are you and I threatened with long prison sentences and huge fines if we want to see Cuba through our own eyes?
We visited a wide range of schools, religious organizations and religious leaders, museums, art galleries and studios, and attended a number of music and dance performances. We did not have a Cuban government guide with us and were free to go where we wanted in the evenings. We went all over Havana and spent two days in the countryside. A short trip and many strong impressions.
I have traveled extensively outside the U.S., but I did not know what to expect. We saw no homeless people. Virtually no panhandlers. The streets were safe even late at night. The people looked healthy yet poor. Very few cars, stores and restaurants. Very few police. None with the submachine guns that you see in other large Latin American cities. Virtually no graffiti. No sense of street gangs and potentially violent alienated youth. Many people were critical of some of their government’s policies and wanted a more open economy. At the same time, no one was willing to say they wanted a multi-party government. I think they feared saying this aloud.
One night as we wandered around, we had the opportunity to talk at length with two women about their hopes and dreams. We asked them if they would trade their universal health care, free education through grad school, access to culture and sports and a safe country largely free from violent crime in exchange for a higher standard of living and greater political freedoms. They both said: “NO! WE WANT BOTH! We see no reason why we can’t and shouldn’t have both. Our system has not had a fair test while your powerful country has its boot on our throat. When you go home, please get your government’s boot off our throat. Once it is gone, we can fairly test our system. If it can’t deliver both, then we will change our system again like we did in 1959.” They meant end the Embargo.
The American people agree that our government should change its Cuba policy. In a recent poll, 62% of the American people said they wanted all economic sanctions lifted on Cuba. Sixty-one percent want all travel restrictions lifted. Fifty-six percent want to normalize relations with Cuba, including majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.
The time is now to end our country’s economic sanctions on Cuba. It is time that we as a free people are not denied our rights to travel to Cuba. This decades-old policy has not worked and we, the people, want it changed. If you agree, contact the President and your members of Congress and tell them to end the Embargo and the travel restrictions.