The Cuba blockade


HAVANA -- As the United States goes through another Cuban crisis, I am in Cuba teaching geriatric medicine for the Ministry of Health and at an international medical conference with leading doctors from Europe and South America.

Havana has greatly changed in the last two years. With market reforms, enterprising Cubans have opened many restaurants, coffee shops, repair shops and car dealerships. Pharmacy shelves are stocked.

The endearing 1950s Chevies are still plentiful, but many newer cars, motorcycles and bicycles fight them for parking spaces. The buses run every 30 minutes instead of every hour or two: Bus stops do not have the horrendous block-long lines of exhausted workers.

Houses are being painted and repaired. The peso is convertible at the bank in Havana for the same rate as the street. Tourism is up. Prostitution is way down as the desperate lack of money of two years ago has eased. Begging is rare; friendliness is common.

Major investment money, soon in a building boom of modern skyscrapers with European logos, is coming in. More than a few homeowners tell of cash offers for their homes by Europeans. The week-long carnival is ending -- a city-wide samba and disco festival. Samba is not confined to the dance floor -- a bounce and a sway on a street corner or in a hallway show an optimism that has displaced the tense worry of two years ago.

Not all is well. Cuba has not figured out how to make the transition to a democracy, though foreign investors are betting heavily that it will do so successfully. The country needs time, capital and market and political reforms to rebuild its buildings, utilities and roads. Its dedicated public-salaried teachers, nurses and doctors earn less than taxi drivers and porters who get tourist tips. The imminent rush of wealthy foreign speculators to this huge, lovely, underdeveloped Caribbean island threatens the homes and life-styles of those who live here.

There are also restrictions on free speech and some human-rights abuses. These problems also exist in Kuwait, China, Russia, Singapore or Guatemala, all countries that the United States recognizes as nations, allies, trading partners and friends.

Now, there is the downing of small planes that had repeatedly intruded into Cuban airspace. Blame for this callous waste of life belongs to the radical Miami group that sponsored the flight and to the Cubans who were wrong to shoot these planes down. The U.S. government, knowing about this pattern of provocation and warning, is also responsible. It did not act to stop these provocations by a political interest group that hijacks American foreign national interests for its narrow concerns.

In whose interest?

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended whatever rational, national interest that might have been advanced by the economic and cultural blockade of Cuba. The blockade failed to dislodge Castro. It once was designed to isolate Cuba and deny outsiders a developed island. Now international financial interests are exploiting the United States' own blockade. We have locked ourselves out of Cuba while those interests develop the largest and most powerful island in our back yard.

My flight to Cuba, like U.S. foreign policy, was imaginary. The flight number and destination were not posted at the ticket counter or on the plane gate at Miami International Airport. A Miami-to-Havana flight line was not depicted on the in-flight magazine. When we landed, the world was here.

Steven Miles teaches at the University of Minnesota.

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