I remember that a friend of mine in California sent me a heads-up on the 17th of December saying that the USA and Cuba were about to free some of their prisoners in a gesture of better times to come. But as everyone now knows, it wasn't just a mere prisoner exchange. It was the culmination of intensive, secret negotiations between the two countries to open up everything that legally could be opened up, short of rescinding the trade embargo. President Obama was going where no American President had gone in more than 50 years, toward the complete normalization of Cuban-American relations.
I have to admit, though, that up to now I have not been a great fan of the Obama administration. In its foreign and domestic policy, there is very little that distinguishes it from the Bush administration. But Cuba is different. Cuba changes everything. If President Obama's eight years in office are remembered for anything positive it might just be his stance, and courage, on Cuba.
Indeed, how refreshing it was to finally see an American president admit that the US trade embargo has been a complete failure. The Castro brothers have not been toppled from power and the rest of the planet has long been raking in money from tourist ventures and other investments. Only American businessmen, with a few exceptions, have had to pretend that there isn't an island 90 miles from Key West with a population of 11 million that used to buy just about everything they needed from the United States. So good was the Cuban market for American companies that before the Revolution and the trade embargo you could find the latest model Buicks and Cadillacs in Cuba before you could get them in the United States!
Still the trade embargo and the travel restrictions have succeeded in one thing. They have kept most non-Cuban-Americans from visiting the island. Which is insane when you think of how much culturally and historically the two countries have in common. We are united by much more than what currently divides us. As one of the grandsons of Ernest Hemingway, I was reminded of this when I visited Cuba for the first time in September of 2014. My brother Patrick and I were traveling with a group of American marine biologists and conservationists to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first time our grandfather brought his fishing boat, the Pilar, to Cojimar in 1934 and the 50th anniversary of his Nobel Prize in literature. The outpouring of good will and affection that my brother and I received when we visited Cojimar and our grandfather's house, the Finca Vigía, was something that went far beyond anything we could have imagined. The Cuban people consider Ernest Hemingway as one of their own and revere the man and his work and everything that he left on the island.
In 1956, our grandfather gave his gold Nobel Prize medal to the Cuban people and since that time it has been in the Capilla de los Milagros of the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba. During our visit in September, the Bishop of the cathedral agreed to temporarily move the medal to the Finca Vigía so that my brother and I could see it and actually hold it in our hands.
It was a moment that neither of us will ever forget. We were able to physically touch a part of our family history and to see the importance that the author of The Old Man and the Sea still has as a bridge between our two countries. Without a doubt, he would be happy to know that the United States and Cuba are finally moving forward and talking to each other again. The Cuban and the American people can only benefit economically and especially culturally from this new relationship. A new day has arrived and, if in some small way we helped to bring this about with our visit to the island, then I believe that we have truly honored our grandfather's memory.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
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