Merry Christmas ... to Cuba and to the U.S.

Opinion: Columns

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By David Hammond

When I was a teenager, friends of mine in SDS went to Cuba to help harvest sugar cane — Venceremos!

That kind of in-your-face-Amerika junket seemed very odd to me, even from a left-wing perspective. If the Cuban economy needed to import American students to meet cane quotas, something was going terribly wrong somewhere.

Where that something was going wrong, of course, was in the top-to-bottom command economy on the island … but something also went wrong with American-Cuban relations.

At Portage Park Elementary School in October 1962, I remember looking out my school windows at the darkening sky, wondering if, at any moment, death would descend and incinerate me and everyone else in a nuclear fireball. Obviously, after a scare like that, relations with Cuba have been predictably "complex," and the embargo was one way — along with multiple CIA assassination attempts on Fidel Castro — that the U.S. hoped to punish Cuba.

The embargo was meant to bring the Cuban leaders around to democracy, but of course that did not work. The embargo was, as Hillary Clinton has said, "Castro's best friend" because it gave this brutal, brilliant dictator someone other than himself to blame for Cuba's problems, as well as an "enemy" to rail against.

But I don't think the Cuban people ever considered Americans their enemy though American policies, motivated by powerful Cuban exile groups in Florida, certainly contributed to Cuban hardship though not nearly so much as Castro's dictatorial policies.

In Havana years ago, I walked into a grocery store and found the shelves largely bare, though there were about eight different kinds of mustard available. Evidently, some central planning committee decided it was important to increase mustard imports and decrease imports of just about everything else. Or perhaps these shortages were because no one had American dollars (ironically, the island's preferred currency) to buy anything. 

That kind of unrelenting hardship, I believe, motivated the Cuban people to develop personal relationships that transcended harsh economic realities. My experience with Cubanos has been that they are warm and caring for one another — because if they don't help each other, no one else will.

Having access to American agricultural products, which are just 90 miles away from the Cuban coast, is going to make a huge difference in the diets and health of Cuban citizens. Having another market to serve will be good for American farmers as well. People tend not to remember that closing off the Cuban market also hurts American business, and with the predictable influx of tourists to the island, Cuba is going to need a lot more than just food. 

I'm guessing, though, that the imports to the island will probably begin with those items that are easiest to send and immediately needed, like food.

Food brings people together, and once relations with the island state are normalized — above the protests of those who are painfully, clearly on the wrong side of history — maybe Cubans will start collecting American dollars and eating some decent chow.

People always get along better on a full stomach, and it's about time we got along with Cuba. So Merry Christmas, Cuba, and Merry Christmas to us because bringing a little more peace to the world is what this holiday is supposed to be all about.

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