So near and yet so far -- that's how most Americans like me feel after a visit to Cuba -- the largest Caribbean island and a country that the U.S. continues to treat as a political pariah. I returned from a visit there last month under a U.S. government licensed program with the Vermont Caribbean Institute to promote citizen diplomacy.
Since the 1959 communist revolution, Cuba has bedeviled U.S. policy makers and remains an authoritarian state. Yet politics cannot ignore the human and ecological reality of our relationship with Cuba. Only 90 miles away from the southern tip of Florida, Cubans have been isolated by a historic vendetta that has its roots in a bygone Cold War era struggle.
It seems anachronistic for the U.S. to insist on Cuba's isolation because of its political system or its human rights record when we are establishing better relations with states that have similar ideologies and equally checkered pasts such as Burma. Even our relations with Vietnam, after a war in which nearly 60,000 Americans and over 3 million Vietnamese were killed, have been mended -- with the U.S. flag flying over our embassy in Hanoi since 1995.
And yet despite several calls for rapprochement by the Cuban government, the U.S. remains reluctant to officially establish diplomatic relations because of domestic politics. The exiled Cuban-American community in Florida has lobbied hard to prevent any engagement with the Castro regime. One can understand their sense of loss for being pushed out of their homeland. But there is point beyond which languishing in the past undermines ones own better judgement and interests.
What is particularly alarming about this stance is that we already have a major diplomatic presence in Havana under a peculiar arrangement whereby a U.S. special interests section is allowed to operate with a staff of almost 200 strong! This quasi-embassy can grant visas, engage in economic and social research but with some constraints on movement around the country. The U.S. has also leased land for the Guantanamo Bay base on Cuba's extreme eastern tip since the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903 but at nominal rates (45 square miles for 2,000 gold coins a year -- now valued at around $10,000 per year). The U.S. has continued to deposit this money in an account; the Cuban government refuses to accept this payment but has little leverage to challenge the status quo.
The rationale for Cuba's isolation given by the U.S. is to maintain pressure on Cuba 's authoritarian government with sanctions -- but this strategy has failed. Sanctions only work in the context of global consensus and given the specifics of this conflict much of the rest of the world scoffs at U.S. intransigence on the matter. Even our northern neighbor, Canada, which usually goes along with our foreign policies remains committed to maintaining strong diplomatic ties with Cuba and the largest single segment of tourists to this remarkably scenic island comes from Canada.
I believe that the time has come to dispense with past vendettas and parochial politics and focus on strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba. Such an approach, which is very tentatively being explored by the Obama administration, is likely to be far more effective in improving Cuba's political system. At present there are numerous misconceptions about the the extent of U.S. sanctions on Cuba among the local population there. For example, the extremely slow internet connections and exorbitant phone rates are often blamed by Cubans on U.S. sanctions. However, telecommunications infrastructure is now exempt from the sanctions along with easing of travel restrictions. The U.S. needs to do more to better communicate such good-will gestures to the Cuban people.
However, far more needs to be done to improve trade and commerce between the two countries. It is astounding to find cookies in Cuba being imported from Vietnam and Russia rather than from the U.S.! Cubans remain desperately poor in monetary terms because of errant central planning but their quality of life in terms of access to education and health care is undoubtedly superior to many other Caribbean countries. There is indeed room for collective learning on both sides and neither the U.S. nor the Cuban governments should have the hubris to let their political differences prevent their citizens from connecting. Surely, our common humanity, and our socio-ecological connectivity can transcend the grievances of the past.