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A Yankee Notebook

December 22, 2014


MONTPELIER – About ten years ago a couple of dozen Vermont Public Radio members and I sat in an auditorium in the Swiss embassy in Havana, listening to a lecture by a young staff member of the American Interests Division. (We had no formal relations with the government of Cuba, had had none for decades, and still haven’t.) After reciting American government boilerplate for some time – Communist dictator, oppression of the Cuban people, export of terrorism), she opened the session to questions. One elderly Vermonter pointed out that the strict American embargo had been in place for half her life and had thus far accomplished nothing positive. Was there anything we common folk could do about it? “Yes,” the staffer said, a bit wistfully, “You can vote.”

And so I have been, assiduously, as well as e-mailing my congresspersons and the White House. From my representatives I’ve gotten bland assurances, signed by aides, that they were sort of in favor of ending the embargo; from the White House, nothing. I’ve helpfully pointed out the rewarding potential of engagement, the antediluvian ineffectiveness of Cold War sanctions and embargoes against a state that other nations trade with readily; and even Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. To no avail. It was like attacking Carcassone with a peashooter, or dropping a rock down a dry well: no splash.

So (to borrow a line from Robert Service) imagine my emotions of amazement and delight when a news bulletin announced that President Obama was moving unilaterally to reopen the American embassy in Havana and and ease the conditions of our outdated estrangement from our Caribbean neighbor – so close that, as Diana Nyad recently proved, you can swim here from there. It was to me like a really great early Christmas present.

I’ve been to Cuba twice now, and each visit has whetted my desire to go again. But the United States’ grumpy intransigence about permitting anything that might conceivably help that government, as well as Cuban security’s suspicions of Americans’ intentions, are real wet blankets on the experience. I’m sure I’ve heretofore mentioned the trouble I had getting half a dozen brand-new baseballs through Cuban Customs last time; nobody there believed I’d brought them with me just as gifts for los niños – the kids. My videographer buddy got his electronic stuff through far quicker than I did my baseballs, which got bounced on the floor, sniffed by a dog, and X-rayed.

Still, the memories of sun-washed cobblestone squares and old Spanish colonial buildings; the sugarcane countryside; uniformed schoolkids – girls in short-sleeved white blouses and short-skirted jumpers, boys in white shirts and shorts – running toward us to practice their already good English; the cars of my youth: 1955 Cadillacs, 1953 Kaisers and Chevys; and the handsomest people anywhere, sing a siren song urging a return.

Only an utter Pollyanna would dare to believe that all Americans would be in favor of reopening relations with the so-called Pearl of the Antilles. As soon as I heard the announcement that President Obama – often reviled as a “do nothing president” – had done something important and long overdue, I knew it would be a matter of hours before the fulminations began. There is literally almost nothing that man can do that doesn’t evoke carping and resistance (remember last summer’s tan suit?).

Sure enough: Within hours, there was thunder in the south, and three members of Congress from Florida vowed resistance to the plan for rapprochement, forged though it was after urging by Pope Francis and by high-level meetings in Canada. In a depressingly familiar response reported in The Washington Post, “Their staffs have begun scouring pertinent laws related to determine if there are ways to impede the new financial avenues to commerce with the island nation.” There are threats of refusing to fund the opening of the United States Embassy, as well as other initiatives to further trade and exchanges. The presumptive Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has indicated his support of efforts to close any possible openings.

The reasons – if reason can be said to enter into the resistance – are specious. Everyone knows that Cuba is and has been for over half a century in the grip of a dictatorship that restricts human rights – supposedly disqualifying itself from recognition – though this has somehow not been the case with Russia, China, North Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia , with whom we have done a lively business while they have repressed and imprisoned dissenters and minorities.

If only poor Cuba, like Venezuela, had reserves of oil, it’d get at least a partial pass. But as far as is known, it hasn’t. What it has got is abundant natural beauty (Columbus was the first European to remark on it); agriculture that, forced to get along without chemicals, has been showing American organic farmers how it’s done; an educational system that’s produced the highest literacy rate in the hemisphere; a socialized medicine system that we might well emulate if we weren’t so hidebound; and baseball players! – the thought of which has general managers all over the States suddenly coming to attention.

It’s a truism that military leaders are always preparing to fight the last war. The same can be said of old pols: They cling to ancient policies. The Grumpies may win this one, with the result that we citizens of the Land of the Free are not free to travel where we will. But eventually, when, like the long-ago guards on the Great Wall of China, our guardians of liberty get fed up with what they’re protecting, the gates will open, and we can begin to talk with each other again.

Photo by Willem lange