This last month my wife and I, along with 11 other Americans and one British citizen, found ourselves traveling through a communist country closer to the U.S. than Iowa City is from Des Moines, 90 miles south of Miami. Our less-expensive trip, organized through Intrepid Tours, focused on local lodging and more folksy travel through the capital of Havana, Los Vinales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
Folks we met appreciated the free health care and education, housing and subsidized food, but they complained of constraints with the lack of free enterprise. After the revolution, professionals and wealthy land owners left in droves for the U.S., taking some 10 years to rebuild the medical profession and others. Many of us might have been in those droves.
The majority of Cubans earn the equivalent of 25 American dollars per month. Opportunities in private work are slowly increasing. A multitude of signs in every town advertise rooms for rent. Even doctors may drive taxis, with many Cubans holding several jobs. Tourism is the growing industry.
We, like many, came to see Cuba before McDonald’s arrives and to appreciate the late 1950s and early ’60s cars that many find so quaint. The fact that these old cars have been repaired and renovated without access to their American parts is a testimony to the ingenuity of the Cuban people and are a symbol of the ongoing U.S. embargo. A parade of these cars is like an old car show everywhere.
People in our own country point out that we trade with Russia and China. Why not with Cuba? One would think that the current U.S. president, with his focus on “the deal,” would relish opportunities to expand American trade with a neighbor so eager and so close. Obama re-opened the American embassy in Cuba after decades of closure. Trump has stated he needs to see greater civil liberties before the embargo will be lifted.
Ending the embargo is the mantra I heard throughout our travel. With no trade with the U.S, goods come from Canada and Europe and are costly. Toilets often have no seats. Basics like toilet paper and soap are in short supply.
David Skidmore, professor of political science at Drake University, wrote me: “When closed societies are exposed to commerce and the circulation of people, ideas and information with the broader world, the result is not always full-scale democratization, but regimes face growing pressures for greater pluralism, personal space and social innovation. When cut off from the world, on the other hand, political control hardens and social stagnation sets in.”
I say end the embargo. Let’s trade and open up our ideas and products to enhance both societies.
David Drake, Iowa View contributor, The Des Moines Register
March 7, 2017