U.S. Foreign Policy Debate Agenda -- What About Cuba?

Associated Press announced "5 things to watch for" in the foreign policy presidential debate in Florida but surprisingly ignored Cuba. Yet Fidel Castro continues to make headlines while President Obama and Governor Romney vie for votes in Florida, the outcome of which is historically influenced by the Cuban-American community. It is notable that this last debate will take place in Boca Raton only 100 miles from Cuba. It was the very same night 50 years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis that President Kennedy gave the most alarming television address of his presidency. Millions of eyes were on the president then and millions of Americans are watching tonight to decide who will lead us through inevitable future crisis in the world. Interesting and relevant to Cuba-USA relations are that this debate also takes place during the exact same time 50 years ago when the 1962 Vatican II Ecumenical Council began in Rome. There is a correlation of events in 1962 and 2012 in Cuba and at the Vatican when we discuss foreign policy that involves Russia (former Soviet Union), China and the USA that affects security, commerce and jobs, key concerns in this election. It would behoove both contenders for the Oval Office to seriously formulate the right foreign policy for how America will conduct relations with our next door neighbor Cuba. There are some 12 million Cuban people anxious for support from Cuban-Americans but who are divided from their families physically and by divergent mentalities.

Is Fidel Castro finally on his deathbed as claimed in the recent media or simply still a thorn in the side of every American president since 1959? When it comes to discussing U.S. Foreign Policy regarding Cuba, our presidential candidates will have to contend not only with the health and succession plan of the Castro Brothers, but the overall history of our relationship with Cuba and the deep-rooted emotions in the Cuban-American community. In Cuba and in Florida the one Spanish word that all concerned parties use to describe the relationship is "complicado." A 90 minute debate is not long enough to understand the complexities, but at least it should be on the debate agenda. I submit, once again, that commerce can change the landscape in foreign policy including with Cuba when tourism and trade become the big stick we carry as we tread softly respecting the mentalities of other cultures while imparting America's values of freedom. It was recently announced that Cubans will be able to travel more freely overseas including to the U.S. When that happens, that is a good opening step. It is also good for Americans to be able to visit Cuba, currently allowed for purposeful travel. We have learned that we can conduct worthwhile commerce with nations that hold political systems that are different from our democratic principles for governing. China and Vietnam are two good examples of U.S. trade and tourism cooperation that creates more American jobs. We must however always ensure that our foreign policy and commerce is conducted with a strong commitment to not diminish our Constitutional tenets including free enterprise and individual rights. Freedom to travel is a basic right for all people.

Many Americans remember the critical time in history 50 years ago. What I did not realize as a frightened fourth grader was just how dangerously grave the Cuban Missile Crisis was and how close we were to World War III being ignited. I had the opportunity some years later to tape an interview with Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy' Press Secretary. When asked how close the Cuban Missile Crisis was to causing a nuclear holocaust, this otherwise jovial guy looked straight into the camera and sternly said "you have no idea how extremely close it was to ending the world." Salinger gave credit to intense behind the scenes diplomacy and gifts of Cuban cigars. It was not until recently researching the recorded minutes of Vatican II that I discovered in the chapter entitled "The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Papal Peace-Initiative" that the leading "behind the scenes" diplomat was in fact Pope John XXIII. Probably why there is a memorial to this pope now in Old Havana. Earlier this year in March, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the "Virgen de la Caridad", the Patroness of Cuba, beloved by all Cubans the world over. During his meeting with Fidel Castro, the Pope smiled saying, "I'm almost 85 too, but I'm still working hard." Interesting to note that due to the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba, Christmas was re-instated and a seminary was re-opened. During the 2012 papal visit Good Friday was declared a public holiday in Cuba. These papal visits are a big deal to many Cubans. They hope desperately for improved relations soon with the United States. One could say that hope becomes reality when there is some faith and charity in the mix.

Following President Kennedy's somber and scary television address on October 22, 1962, the principal of our school, Sister Marie Elizabeth, gathered all the students the next morning into Maria Regina Church. We knelt and prayed the rosary for hours for a peaceful resolution. That was happening across America and other parts of the world. I know many are skeptical at the notion of prayer but for sure that kind of action cannot hurt and maybe it can help. Lina Ruiz Gonzalez, mother of Fidel and Raul Castro, wrote a prayerful message to the "Virgen de la Caridad" asking that her sons be protected and live long. She left her letter at the Chapel of Miracles in the Basilica of Del Cobre near Santiago de Cuba. It is next to Ernest Hemingway's Nobel Prize for Literature for "Old Man and the Sea." Hemingway left this prize in gratitude to "Our Lady of Charity" for receiving this revered recognition for his work.

The newly elected president, Romney or Obama, when discussing U.S. foreign policy for Cuba will need to consider how to help 12 million Cuban neighbors enjoy a better life and be able to secure the support of the millions of Cuban-Americans who have had that opportunity by living in the United States. Maybe today is a good day to start reflecting on the best future course of action by what we have learned from the past.