Obama needs a push to normalize Cuba ties

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Several years ago, during my first visit to Cuba to attend a health-related meeting, I witnessed a demonstration. As friends and I walked into the Bodeguita del Medio, a traditional restaurant famous for the number of illustrious visitors who had dined there over the years, a young Cuban man was discreetly asked to leave.

Seeing my friends and me, and realizing we weren’t Cuban, he began ranting against government restrictions on Cubans.

“I have money to spend here,” he told us. “But they prefer to have foreigners eat here. I am fed up with this regime.

“Do you see something in that corner?” he asked us.

“Yes,” we said, “there is a man standing there.”

“You are wrong,” he replied, “he is not a man. That’s a gigantic ear listening to everything I say to you. But I don’t care, I am so sick and tired of this situation.”

In a few brief minutes, I got an idea of some of the problems besieging Cuban society: the need for foreign money, the oppressive nature of the regime and the dissatisfaction of the youth. These impressions were later confirmed during another visit to the island when I headed a U.N. mission to assess the progress of Cuban scientists in developing interferon, an antiviral substance.

To pinpoint the Cuban government’s shortcomings, however, is in no way to deny its achievements. During that last visit I was able to meet Fidel Castro. Although we didn’t raise any political issues in our conversation, I was able to observe his enormous interest in, and knowledge of, health issues. That interest and knowledge underlie his government’s achievements in health and education.

Cuba is in the forefront of both fields when compared to other Latin American countries. And in some areas, it is on par with the United States. This progress, however, has been hindered by an unnecessary and ineffective embargo against that country, a situation that has cost the U.S. materially as well as hurt its prestige among Latin American governments that consider the embargo a violation of a nation’s rights and sovereignty.

There is no doubt that political pressure from the powerful Cuban exile community in Florida has been an important factor in maintaining the embargo. However, the descendants of that immigrant generation have a more nuanced view of the Cuban regime. they have seen the damage caused by the antagonism between both countries and are eager for more amicable relations between them.

While Cubans have always been clear about their admiration for the American people — which I have observed during my visits to the island — the embargo ends up fostering more hate and mistrust of the U.S. government than of the Cuban government. Moreover, the U.S. has been flying in the face of world opinion on the Cuban issue.

If votes in the U.N. General Assembly are a test, no country in the world — with the exception of the U.S., Israel and the Marshall Islands — support the embargo.

President Barack Obama has wisely eased restrictions on travel to the island by Cubans and their descendants. He should now strengthen that approach through an intense exchange of scientists, doctors, artists and ordinary citizens. The effect would be dramatic in neutralizing the atmosphere of antagonism and should lead to a lifting of the embargo.

Trade with the U.S. now amounts to half a billion dollars a year, a negligible amount that is equivalent to U.S. trade with Canada on a single day. Should normal relations return, the increase in trade could be substantial.

A furthering of the Obama administration’s more open attitude toward the island is in the best interests of both the American and Cuban people.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.