These thoughts are the reflection of a people-to-people trip to Cuba with National Geographic, a program that is fundamentally educational and a discovery.
In 2015, the 7th Americas Summit, in Panama City, included Cuba for the first time. This U.S. initiative would have happened without the U.S. if they had refused the presence of its neighboring island. It was the first meeting between Barack Obama and Raul Castro, that led to the reopening of the U.S. Embassy and the visit of the U.S. President in Havana. It was also the clearest indication that the US were the only nation not to have such relationship. 90 miles from Key West, it was time not to submit US foreign policy to the lobby of the Cuban Americans in Florida.
The Soviet period (1959-1989)
The U.S. always assumed -- against all evidence -- that Fidel Castro was a puppet and that he was an agent for the Soviet Union. J.F. Kennedy inherited the Richard Nixon project to invade Cuba. He scaled it down and unrealistically tried to hide the fact that the invaders had U.S. weapons and were under the protection of several US ships. Of course, like in Iraq, the U.S. would be welcomed as a liberator. The United States foreign policymakers have an uncanny ability to believe that they are always liberators as they were in Normandy. It explains why all U.S. wars since than ended in failure.
Yet, the U.S. had an excuse: to protect Cuba, the Soviet Union brought a nuclear arsenal to defend Cuba that was a threat to the United States, and took it out following the Cuban blocus by the U.S. Navy.It explains the ostracism on Cuba until 1989, when the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.
The "special period" (1989-2005)
As Russia stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy, the Cuban people suffered the worst famine and destructive period of their history. Fortunately, one by one all countries reopened their Embassies and Europe and Latin America went to the rescue. In March 2016, the United States announced a "historic" opening of agricultural relationships with Cuba with the support of the US food companies, particularly Cargill, who had boycotted any such effort.
Without serious consideration for the consequences, what was a legitimate defensive policy became a political regime change blockade motivated by the inability of any Administration to confront the powerful Cuban lobby in Florida, that continued to "trade with Cuba' more or less clandestinely.
The Raul Castro era (2006- Present)
As Raul Castro succeeded his ailing brother Fidel, the country started to lift restrictions on imports, travel, private enterprises ... it would have been normal for the U.S. administration to revisit its policy. In 2003 George W. Bush had chosen to impose fresh measures designed to hasten the end of communist rule in Cuba, including tightening a travel embargo to the island, cracking down on illegal cash transfers, and a more robust information campaign aimed at Cuba. A new body, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, is created.
In 2015, the majority of Cuban Americans approved the lifting of the embargo, except, of course, Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz who characterized the change as a "tragic historical mistake".
The Cuban opportunity for the United States
Cuba is not a country for faint-hearted, let alone for half-hearted tiptoeing visitors. It is remarkable that the omnipresent criticism of the U.S. policy towards the country has not translated into an opposition to the US people and culture. We were received warmly, even one evening at the Comite de la Revolucion.
But we would be naive to consider that attitude as complacency. We have been responsible for 55 years of misery and the return to some form of progress happened despite the U.S. blockade. It is a political failure, but more importantly, when the Soviet bloc collapsed and let Cuba down, the United States did not seize the opportunity to compensate for this dramatic downturn. We let the Cubans down when they needed us the most. They vividly remember it.
We are welcome, but Cubans have enjoyed benefits that the U.S. ignores: social benefits, free health care and free education. They are not willing to renounce to the main benefits of socialism. The Cuban authorities have learned their lesson: they will not depend on one single country. Our luxury buses were Chinese. Out of 3 million tourists a year, one million are Canadians who have been hugely supportive of the island. Russia is still supportive. Europe has come back and all new cars are non U.S. The "youngest ones" we drove were 1959 models.
The only way the United States will be able to rebuild a normal relationship with Cuba is by being non-intrusive and understand that we need to buy the hearts and souls of the Cubans. It requires a respectful approach, not the U.S. invasion that the Cuban people fear. They are proud and want to remain masters of their destiny.
The opportunity is great, but the challenge as well. Culture might be our best mutual cooperation