When I ask my Cuban-born grandparents what they think about President Obama being the first U.S. President in almost ninety years to visit Cuba, they react with disgust and disdain. They ask me things like, “Why did he open up relations with [Cuba] without obtaining any concessions from the Cuban government like guaranteeing freedom of the press for the people or allowing all decedents to express themselves without being jailed or injured?” Their voicing of opposition is seemingly endless, and understandable.
My Nana and Papa were born and raised in Cuba. They have often said how different Cuba was for them before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, telling me it was “almost as developed as the United States was [at the time]…People could use dollars and peso’s alike on the island because they were both worth the same”. Plus, according to PBS, Cuba ranked third in life expectancy, fourth highest literacy rate in Latin America, and had a thriving middle class before Castro.
Once Castro took power in 1959, my Nana and Papa’s parents (my great-grandparents) businesses –which they started from nothing — were confiscated by the Castro regime, leaving both of my great-grandparents without any income. I can recall my Papa telling me how his father arrived in the United States with nothing more than $5 in his pocket, and only a t-shirt, one pair of shorts, two pairs of undershirts, and one hat in his suitcase.
My grandparents and their families came to the United States thinking that one day they would go back to Cuba “after everything [the Revolution] passed.” Unfortunately, the Revolution never passed, and instead the U.S. tried – mainly through military and economic means – to change the Cuban government. Both tactics failed. First, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was supposed to topple the Castro regime militarily. The United States followed the invasion with a round of economic sanctions and a trade embargo. The embargo, which Congress implemented in 1961 and is still in place today, was supposed to squeeze the Cuban government economically, thus giving them an incentive to reform democratically. Instead, the embargo has hurt some of Cuba’s most vulnerable populations, like people living in poverty and people of color.
I can recall my Papa telling me how his father arrived in the United States with nothing more than $5 in his pocket, and only a t-shirt, one pair of shorts, two pairs of undershirts, and one hat in his suitcase.
Usually, if a policy is implemented, and throughout the years (or in this case for decades) has done nothing to meet its objective and is actually making things worse for the people it is supposedly trying to help, it might be a good idea to take a different approach. That is why I support President Obama’s change in U.S.-Cuba relations, particularly the re-opening of diplomatic and economic channels. Additionally, I highly support and encourage Congress to lift the trade embargo on Cuba. Already we are seeing the President’s actions bear fruit.
Now, some people, like my grandparents, might think I’m naive and too optimistic. And I totally understand that. I did not have to flee the country that I was born in to escape communism. I did not have to start all over and learn a new language when I was eighteen years old. I get it, and my critics may be right about me being naive. Change in Cuba may never happen, or if it does it might not happen for years or decades. Instead of helping the people, the opening up of relations could end up only helping the regime. All of these possibilities are true. However, one thing is certain, the status quo of no economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries did not help change the Cuban government. Cuba is still a communist authoritative country. Nothing has changed, and even if Obama didn’t open up relations, there wasn’t going to be any change either. If the trade embargo were to achieve what it was initially implemented to do, we would have seen its effects decades ago.
Fortunately, Cubans and Americans have the chance to make things better for the two countries moving forward. As President Obama said in Cuba, “It’s time now for us to leave the past behind”, and he’s spot on when he says this because if we keep looking back at the past, and think about our past disagreements, we will keep being stuck in the past when we should instead be looking ahead into the future. Thinking about ways that can benefit both Cubans and Americans alike. Helping both peoples grow and learn from each other. That is what the future holds for both the U.S.-Cuba relationship and for its people. The future of our two countries, open and communicating, is what will bring real change to Cuba.