That much-repeated phrase is true, but it is also misleading, leading one to believe the U.S. and Cuban governments’ have been economically estranged since Calvin Coolidge was president. Erased are the six decades — from 1898 to 1959 when the United States manipulated Cuban politics, first stealing its independence struggle from Spain, then ruling the island with gunboats and economic threats.
U.S. Ambassadors before and after Coolidge’s visit, played kingly roles in Cuban politics, picking leaders and threatening invasions if policies injurious to U.S. sugar interests were considered. During that time Cubans were constantly struggling to overcome U.S. domination. In fact, in 1928 when Calvin Coolidge visited, there was mass movement brewing, involved Afro Cuban sugar workers, urban labor and feminist (really!) groups and disaffected military, that would result in a major revolt in 1933. The U.S. ambassador would be key to subverting that earlier revolution.
After the 1959 revolution the U.S. hoped they could subvert the Castro forces. But when Cuba began nationalizing sugar interests, the U.S. began 60 years of embargo. Often, it included third party punishment — you trade with Cuba, you don’t trade with us. The embargo hobbled the nation during every period of its revolution, but since 1990, the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the sugar industry, choking access to essential goods has exacerbated the “special period” of want and even malnutrition.
As I watch coverage of this historic moment between Obama and Castro in Havana I find myself imagining what a third kind of economic relationship between Cuba and the U.S. would look like; one that would actually benefit the Cuban people.
Since Cuba has little in the way of international currency, a fair and reparative trade relationship might start with barter. Cuban trades its know-how: its years of experimentation with preventative health local care, its life-saving research on diseases ravaging the planet, its of-necessity efforts building neighborhood organic agriculture, its vintage car repair. For a nation now considering the proposal of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for free college tuition and health care, can learn from a nation that does so on an extremely tiny budget. In a climate-changing world, Cuba’s ability to survive natural catastrophe without losing lives, is invaluable knowledge.
In exchange Cuba gets stuff:
- Seeds, and all those invisible goods necessary for local sustainable agriculture (like cardboard boxes, fencing etc).
- Building materials to address Cuba’s chronic shortage in housing.
- The solar and wind material to allow Cuba to become energy sufficient.
- The material to build mass transit on the island — sorely needed.
- Medicine and other hardware to realize the possibilities of their health care system.
- Books and other school supplies to make their education system what it wants to be.
- The materials needed to jumpstart local economic enterprises.
U.S. tourism in Cuba is already burgeoning and would only multiply. For this industry to benefit Cubans, a different model is needed than the pre 1959 version — and that on most other Caribbean islands— where U.S. hotel franchises are the profiteers, jobs are few and bottom-rung, essential resources like water go to tourists, and drugs and prostitution feeds foreign desires and leaves local tragedies. (Cuba is already struggling with all these things with its European visitors. Its beautiful beaches have been difficult for Cubans to access, as they were during the U.S. imposed Jim Crow segregation of the 1950s. )
Beyond trade, people-to-people exchanges between activists against white supremacy, for GLBT, women’s, disability rights and environmental justice would be invaluable. Scholars, isolated from scientific and social scientific exchanges with colleagues for decades, will benefit from greater access to the work of their counterparts.
Another world is possible.
U.S. Cuban rapprochement could be a step toward that world, but it will require something completely new for the United States — an internationalist mindset. For that, Cuba — who has educated foreign doctors for free if they agree to work in their nations for those who lack care, sends healthcare experts when epidemics like Ebola emerge, and is the globe’s first responder when natural disaster strikes — can be a great mentor.