Cuba vs. United States: What needs to change (first) in 2013

Graham Sowa

HAVANA TIMES — In 2013 the United States should end the travel ban and heavy restrictions on United States Citizens in regard to travel to Cuba. President Obama should use executive office powers at his disposal to weaken the blockade/embargo.

I’ve left the United States many times to various countries. Every day I realize more and more what a privilege this has been. The vast majority of the world has not even been able to come close to being able to do that. And I think that privilege has made me oblivious to the absolute necessity world travel is to humanity. It is sad that even though my government has benefited so much by making travel ridiculously easy for us they still think that they are doing us a favor by telling us we can’t go to Cuba.

Those of us that do have the privilege to travel, or know people that do, should try to make travel more meaningful for others.

I have noticed that when I have friends traveling to another country I don’t even take enough time to really learn about where they are going. And that ignorance limits my ability to answer the question: “Do you want anything from where I’m going”?

I usually just stammer for words and think of the most generic cultural item I can from that general part of the world. I mean, after all, I’m from the United States of America; what could any other country in the world have that I don’t have access to…right?

I think that question is even harder to ask if you are from the United States and someone you know is traveling to Cuba. I know when I ask people what they want from the island they usually say “Cohiba cigars and Havana Club rum”.

I just wish I knew who to blame for their lack of knowledge of Cuba. (Also, a bit ironic that they are asking for products produced directly by the Cuban state, which we are supposed to be against.)

I think there are lots of places to place blame for Americans having little to no knowledge of Cuba. The primary recipient of that blame (yes, there are others, but none that does as much damage) is the travel restriction to Cuba and the blockade.

I think that is why a lot of Americans don’t know enough about Cuba to ask for something from here other than Cohiba and Havana Club. But the Cubans, they know A LOT about the United States. And they are definitely able to request very specific and important items.

I’ve been asked for “an American made” sturdy work watch that is water proof and “keeps the time well unlike that Chinese crap”. I’ve been asked for birthday present Sponge Bob doll for a family member. I’ve been asked for information about opportunities outside of Cuba as well.

All of those things reflect knowledge about the United States (even though I hate Sponge Bob because it is empty garbage. But you know what, that kid is getting that dumb doll).

On the other hand an “American made” watch of any brand might be a bit more of a struggle since my country is producing less of anything these days.

I think the United States ending the travel ban to Cuba would help Americans become more knowledgeable about Cuba. And I think ending the blockade would be of huge benefit to the Cuban people and help them get more stuff they don’t have ready access to.

I realize there are those who feel the Cuban state is at fault for all this. I say that of the things the Cuban state is at fault for, this is not one of them. We have and enforce laws punish people who travel to Cuba and trade with Cuba.

The limitations that Cuba imposes are most because of low income, not because the country actually outlaws buying of products from the exterior. We, the United States, need to change. More importantly: we need to change first.

People from my home should be able to know enough about the diversity, as emerging as it might be, of Cuban products. They need to know that there is Santero Rum (among dozens of others) instead of Havana Club. They need to know that they they can ask for some hand made shoes from a non-state union of workers.

I hope that the next time I give someone a refrigerator magnet with on old American car crudely painted on it that I got from the touristy part of Havana Vieja they will look me in the eyes and say “I this all Cuba really has to offer”?

I feel that a lot of people in the United States think that Cuba is communist and that means it lacks all variety and variation. We should be able to see for ourselves if that is true or not.


Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

Graham has 89 posts and counting. See all posts by Graham

32 thoughts on “Cuba vs. United States: What needs to change (first) in 2013

  • The people in Cuba are oppressed. Communism has done nothing for these people.
    Fidel destroyed a once beautiful island country, with rich European roots and culture, and reduced to a third world country. American traveling there have little or no clue of the history. Fidel, with his childish rhetoric of “imperialists” and all the blah blah of his brainwashing hasn’t stopped the desire and will of the people to wish his dictatorship to end. They risk their lives crossing in rubber rafts. Investment in Cuba is a risk. While I would like to travel there, I won’t. I don’t need to visit an island that is oppressed and support a government where only the brothers Castro have become billionaires.
    I am not sure what the answer is. But serious sanctions need to be in place to force the people into another revolution against Castro and his “out-dated” regime.
    The world has moved forward leaving Cuba in the dark ages.

  • Raul and Che were both was Marxists and close to the Communist Party. Fidel himself said he was certainly a Marxist, but was never a member of the Communist Party because he chafed at filling their orders and directions. First and foremost, Fidel was a Fidelist.

    You are correct there were other political groups among the rebels. They joined together to fight Batista (an action I support). They agreed to hold free multi-party elections once the dictator was overthrown. Fidel reneged on that promise, saying, “I didn’t win a revolution just so I could lose an election.” When rebel allies like Huber Matos objected to this broken promise, Castro had them thrown in prison or shot.

    For this reason many people believe the revolution was stolen from the people at the moment of victory.

  • Oh, surprise. Not only Moses justifies the blockade. Who said he wasn’t ‘far right’ again?

  • It’s well known that the ’59 Revolution had a nationalist character. Raul was a Marxist, but many – including Fidel – were not. The refusal of US companies to refine Soviet oil was responded with nationalizations and further ties with the URSS.

  • “Neither Moses nor I are as you suggest “far right”.”

    Not only far right, I’d add ‘reactionary’ to the book. You fool no one.

  • Wrong again Paul. The US embargo doe not prevent CUBA from doing anything. The law prohibits US (repeat US) companies from doing business with Cuba or with other non-US companies that have done or continue to do business with Cuba. Clearly, the impact of these prohibitions are marginally felt in Cuba. Nonetheless, International legal scholars have long upheld that a soverign nation may regulate the licensed businesses doing business inside their territory. Use your head, if the embargo were illegal, Cuba would have long ago sued the US in the Hague.

  • Thank you Paul for posting what needed to be said about the blockade.

    It was explicitly put in place to make the people, ALL the people of Cuba, suffer so much that they would throw away their revolution and return to capitalism .

    I repeated this from your post because that intention to bring immense suffering on the Cuban people is publicly admitted to by the GOUSA.

    It is a fact that our enemies on the right like Moses will never mention .

    It is not to be forgotten that during Bill Clinton’s administration the U.S. imposed an embargo on Iraq that in ten years resulted in the death of 500,000 Iraqi children and this too is public knowledge . Clinton’s Secretary of State at the time, Madeline Albright was later quoted as saying that considering everything , “….it was worth it”

    If the GOUSA can do that and have no qualms about it, it sure can impose as harsh a life on the Cubans as it can manage also without any problems with conscience .

    It is also not to be forgotten that for the sin of wanting to elect Ho Chi Minh , three million southeast Asians were carpet-bombed, napalmed, shot, assassinated, tortured and maimed by the GOUSA.

    If the GOUSA can do that and not have any qualms much less any memory of that 25 year slaughter of innocents, it would have no problem using chemical, biological, terror and the blockade on every man, woman and child in Cuba for the same sin against capitalism.

    It is not surprising that the immoral right avoids any discussion of the blockade and that open admission from the GOUSA that the blockade was entirely for the purpose of creating suffering on all the Cuban people and NOT as some would have it, in retaliation for the confiscation of properties or human rights violations or any of the other lies they’ve tried.

  • Does the embargo violate international law? Clearly, if we look at international human rights law, the main source being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in addition to International Bill of Human Rights (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and arguably the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group).

    From among these, one could begin by citing Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes the right of all peoples to self-determination, including the right to “freely determine their political status,” pursue their economic, social and cultural goals, and manage and dispose of their own resources.

    Now contrast this to the effect and EXPLICIT INTENT of the US embargo as stated by the Department of State in a 1960 internal memorandum: “The majority of Cubans support Castro … The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship. … every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. …a line of action which … makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

    What we have, gentlemen, is a concerted attempt to violate the self-determination of a people – a CRIME — a violation of international law.

  • Ludde,

    What you were told is not true. No compensation of any kind was paid. Keep in mind the revolutions siezes not only the property of US corporations, but that of Cuban corporations (including Bacardi, which had helped fund and arm the revolution), and even small business owners, shopkeepers and restaurants and so on. Eventually the revolution confiscated all bank accounts over $100. Not one peso was paid in compensation to anybody.

  • As I have been told, “the revolution” compensated the owners of the “confiscated” companies with the values with which the companies were booked. As these values were kept low, in order to minimize the tax payed in Cuba, the compensation became similarly low. What goes around, comes around.

    Reuters Tue Nov 13, 2012 2:25pm EST:
    “Repeating an annual ritual, the U.N. General Assembly called on Tuesday for the United States to lift its trade embargo against Cuba, whose foreign minister said the blockade against the communist-run island was tantamount to “genocide.”

    For the 21st year, the assembly’s vote was overwhelming, with 188 nations – including most of Washington’s closest allies – supporting the embargo resolution, a result virtually unchanged from last year.

    Israel, heavily dependent on U.S. backing in the Middle East, and the tiny Pacific state of Palau were the only two countries that supported the United States in opposing the non-binding resolution in the 193-nation assembly.”

  • Graham,

    Neither Moses nor I are as you suggest “far right”.

    I support an independent, sovereign and democratic Cuba where human rights are respected and freedoms guarenteed. I do not support a return of US hegemony in Cuba and certainly not a rightist dictatorship of the likes of Batista. If you insist that makes me “far right” , then you are the one playing at semantic games.

  • Hi Graham,
    Totally engaging story.
    In my opinion the US needs to make the first move.
    Lets not forget that they have been the aggressors here!

  • Graham, uh, I’m a bit perplexed by your second paragraph. I believe the US embargo or blockade is criminal. Please don’t confuse me with the right-wingers. Cheers.

  • OK, Graham. I think I finally understand where you are coming from. I heartily disagree however. I assert that Cuba should and must change first, because Cuba stands to gain much more from the improved relations with the US. Also, if Cuba changes first, Obama will not be further emboldened to increase his repression on US citiizens who oppose the Obama administration. If Obama changes first, the Castros will interpret that as US weakness or as a result of Cuba’s resolve and the response will likely be less not more freedom for Cuban dissidents. Be honest Graham, you know that the Castros are on their last lap. They need every morsel of propaganda to maintain their “centralized” control. (euphemism for dictator). As more Americans travel to Cuba because of relaxing travel restrictions, that will result in more hard currency for the Castros. Will they use this money to encourage or repress independent press? Will Granma tout the concessions made by the US as a positive aspect of imperialism or as the strength of the regime to continue to resist foreign pressure. Finally, Graham, if the US simply waits it out, what’s the harm to US interests? Change is coming to Cuba, either through the death of the Castros or Chavez or by immigration or a failing economy, and sooner rather than later. The urgency to improve relations with Cuba is Cuba’s problem, not ours.

  • Yeah, I agree throwing “criminal” in from of the word embargo or blockade is a loud political statement about how you feel on the subject. Usually when people say that their point of view is entirely predictable and not really new or thoughtful. Some thing with you guys who argue everything on the far right. Just a bunch of old, tired, insignificant rhetoric.

    And I’m well aware of the white card, the severe limitations on Cubans to travel….I have plenty of friends who I have lamented about this subject many many times. It is a bullshit policy which can only (weakly) be supported by an argument against brain drain…and argument which I don’t find convincing in the slightest. And there are excellent articles written about that subject on this website, which I encourage you to read if that is what you are looking for. The article I wrote (which you have commented on a lot, but I don’t know if you grasp it or not because for some reason we are arguing weather or not it is OK to put the word “criminal” in front of the word “blockade” I mean WTF folks? Is this as good as we can do, elementary school semantics….but I digress. I don’t think the U.S. and Cuba will come to any bilateral agreement on any changes that either country wants the other one to make any time soon. So I argue that the U.S. should change first, this year, while Obama is in his second term. I think it is the best chance for a big short term change we have. If I thought there was a better solution that was feasible I’d argue that.

  • Good work, Graham! I appreciate your honest, insightful, well-written expressions of your valid opinions in both the original post and the follow-up interactions.

    Greater freedom to trade and travel has long been my mantra for Cuba.

  • Graham,

    There are arguments to be made against the embargo, on humanitarian, political or diplomatic grounds. The point Moses and I were making is that it is not “criminal” as it violates no laws. Words matter and tossing around labels like “criminal embargo” are not helpful toward a meaningful discussion of this complex issue.

    So let’s be honest and admit that the Cuban government has imposed their embargo on freedom of travel for the Cuban people. You are wrong that this restriction is only financial. People must apply to the Cuban government for permission to leave the island even for a short visit. The Cuban government levees high fees on these applications. Some categories of applicants are refused automatically. Neither my country, Canada, nor the USA requires people to apply to leave the country. US travel restrictions apply only to certain kinds of travel to Cuba, which limitations do not seem to have hindered you from visiting Cuba.

  • Eugene,

    I hope you see this reply. I’m interested in your trip to Cuba with Rotary. I’m a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar (Botswana 2008) and I am trying to get things moving with Rotary again on the island. Please look me up on facebook and message me. I’d love to talk with you.


  • William, if you read this please look me up on FB or email the site editor for my email address. I live just down the street from you and would love to hear more about the book you are working on. Thanks for your comments.


  • Grady,

    I don’t agree that Cuba can change quickly. While I think Cuba has put into motion a bunch of changes that will take a few years to implement I think the U.S. is more apt to make quick changes. There just needs to be political will and willingness to spend political capital. Cuba’s entire system is structured around centralized management. They have a lot to change when changes are made. The United States only needs to change its policy of exclusion. We don’t have an economy structured around blocking travel or trade with Cuba. We basically hinder both of those things to keep a small, increasingly insignificant group of people in South Florida happy. Barack could end the travel ban quickly if he wanted. The embargo would take a longer time (b/c of the congressional action required) but even there Barack could take some executive measures that would weaken the dumb thing.

    Oh, and as to the embargo/blockade being “criminal” or not. If you don’t think it is “criminal” to limit where someone can travel and where you can do business simply because you don’t like how they structure their economy or what they did during the Cold War or how they treat political opposition you would be eliminating some of the largest U.S. trading partners (China). How about this my Cuban-American friends: stop trying to turn our country into a capitalist version of all the things you hate about Cuba. Freedom of trade. Freedom of travel. If you want to ban those things why don’t you consider moving to Israel or Palau, the only other two countries to support such ridiculous policies. Just because the embargo/blockade isn’t “criminal” by the letter of the law doesn’t make it very wrong and counterproductive for a host of other reasons.

  • More than 80% of the Cuban population have only known a Castro as the political and moral leader of Cuba. Fidel’s death will likely provoke an otherwise silent majority of Cubans held captive in their reasonable respect and sentiment for their leader to, at the very least, question why they do not have the basic human rights enjoyed by other countries. This reflection, at the extreme, could lead to street protests and work boycotts. At a minimum, however, Cubans will likely show more sympathy for those brave few dissidents who are willing to take to the streets with their disagreement with the post-Castro regime. The elements necessary for an Arab Spring-like response to Castro’s death are woefully absent in Cuba. Nonetheless, as internal economic pressures increase and outside influences through technology and immigration expand, the possibility for abrupt change improves. The hope is always for a peaceful transition but the greater good may be served if this is not the case.

  • I will certainly call the US embargo “criminal” if you can show me where it is against US law. Even against international norms, US soveriegnty permits the US to decide with whom we choose to do business. Nonetheless, enlighten me with the statutes broached by the embargo. Secondly, I hope William’s book includes Raul Castro’s relationship with Nikolai Leonov, the senior KGB officer, whom he met in 1953. The earliest ties between the Castros and the Soviet Union are attributed to this relationship. As a result, it is naive or deceptive to imply that the meeting between Nixon and Fidel tipped the scales to a Communist future for Cuba.

  • A national government is perfectly entitled to trade with other countries or to refuse to trade. There is nothing illegal or criminal under US law about the US embargo of Cuba. Was the seizure of private property by the Cuban revolution “criminal” ? It certainly violated Cuba constitutional law as it existed at the time. So the rulers rewrote the law to legalize the theft. Under international law, when a government nationalizes a privately owned asset, the government must provide fair compensation. That is what the government of Canada did when it nationalized BP Canada to form Petro-Canada.

    William, there are other accounts of that first meeting in Washington between Castro & Nixon and who insulted whom. While still publicly denying his revolution had anything to do with the Communists, among Castro’s entourage were a few senior members of the Cuban Communist Party, traveling with false ID documents. When Nixon presented Castro with a list of suspected Communists in his new gov’t, Castro faked surprise to learn these people were Communists. He even showed the list with one of them at the meeting, much to their private amusement. Nixon was not fooled for one minute and reported to Ike that in his opinion, Castro too was fully sympathetic to the Communist cause.

    So please, do not fall for the ridiculous myth that Castro really, really wanted to be a liberal democrat but changes his mind only after the Yankees snubbed him.

  • Hi Graham, let’s keep in mind that Cuba is able, potentially, to make progressive changes, because it has socialist state power. Its leaders can change course economically and socially by changing their minds.

    Our home country, the US, by contrast, cannot change by the leaders changing their minds.

    Our leaders are puppets of the monopoly banks and industrial-militarists. Those in-power social elements cannot allow the US people to understand socialist Cuba, because their rule is based on being able to manipulate the public opinion of the US citizens. The US ruling class sees public mind control as Job # 1.

    I think the criminal US embargo is likely to stay in place until we the US people achieve cooperative socialist consciousness, and are able to relegate the mind-control machine and its operators to the historical dust bin. In the meantime we should not be discouraged, and should continue to call for a prompt end to the embargo.

    BTW, I do not think either Moses or Griffin will ever refer to the US embargo as “criminal.” Gee . . . I wonder why?

  • Moses,

    “free and independent media” all the media outlets you listed are pretty much the corporate equivalent of Granma…even if the writing is probably a lot better. As I said in the article, I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve seen very little of the reality I’ve experienced in Botswana, Haiti, South Africa, Cuba, even my own country reflected in print or video media. You even make this example yourself when you talk about American media failings to report on South Sudan. On the other hand the breadth of opinions and experiences about these same countries come from travelers or less-than-corporate journalists that usually pay their own way to go places and share about that place via blog, videos, tweets, whatever. Americans can’t do that with Cuba because our country has laws that prohibit us from traveling to Cuba. My question is: do you and Griffen really think it is a good idea to limit American’s freedom to use their passport to go to Cuba?

    As to your comments about Cuba needing to change via Raul or the eventual passing of Fidel (BTW: Why is there a constant death watch cult around Fidel, do you guys really think everything will change when he dies? I’m not Cuban and I only have 3 years living in the country, but that is still enough to know nothing drastic will change with his passing): I think the international media has already decided that Cuba is changing. In 2012 “Change in Cuba” was such a popular these in the media that the NYT did at least 2 long form pieces on the subject and it was a cover story for The Economist and National Geographic. Obviously Cuba is doing SOMETHING, even if you don’t think it is enough. America made a couple of concessions as well. But now it is time for more than concessions, we need to change. And that change should start in 2013 and start with the United States allowing Americans to travel to Cuba and ending the embargo/blockade.

  • Actions begat reactions. When the revolution confiscated privately owned assets, the USA responded by imposing a trade embargo on Cuba. Subsequent actions and reactions have added to the embargo stalemate we have today. Each side is responsible for their own contributions to this state of affairs. Both sides will have to contribute to a resolution of this situation.

    It is not hatred on the part of the US that maintains their embargo. It is naïve and unrealistic to imagine the US would end the embargo unilaterally without Cuba taking any steps to undo or compensate for the actions they took which prompted the embargo.

  • if you are looking for things that cuba should change you can find them on a lot of other articles on this very website, some of which i have written. you might have figured by the title of this article i wasn’t going to be talking about what cuba needs to change.

  • I have done 6 mission trips to Cuba. I have met many beautiful people who wonder why the US hates them. All they know is what they hear from their government and so we have been made the bad guys. Slowly I educate them to the truth. They adore Fidel because he has ‘kept the trains running on time’ for 54 years. Raul is loosening up – there are now many fine private restaurants in Cuba among other enterprises.
    In Iraq we talked about ‘winning hearts and minds’ by having ‘boots on the ground’. In Cuba we could win hearts and minds by having ‘sneakers on the sidewalks’. Imagine 100,000 tourists a year interacting with Cubans and educating them on freedom and liberty. They just might inspire them.
    Instead the US government allowed the lawyers for the Bacardi (rum) and Fanjul (sugar) families to write legislation to toughen the embargo. These billionaires stick it not to Fidel but to the Cuban people for refusing to rise up against Fidel.
    Oh, and the government gives $40 Million a year to all these sleazy ‘pro-democracy’ and anit-Castro groups in Florida, most of which are rife with inbred nepotism. Very little of that money ‘is claimed’ to be sent to Cuba, but I have talked with many dissidents who have never seen a penny. All they have ever gotten is minutes on their cell phones.
    Last comment – little know fact: when Castro gained control of the country after running Batista and his thugs out of the country and they left with $350 Million, he came to the US for assistance both financial and in setting up a government. Eisenhower refused to meet with him and went play golf. He had Nixon meet with him. Tricky Dick insulted Fidel, he walked out and went home. Two weeks later he flew to Moscow and cut a deal with Khrushchev, and the boy who was educated by the Jesuits had to adopt the communist ideology.

    I will soon be publishing a book – “Cubans are People Too” subtitle – But they’ve been given the shaft by the Miami Cartel for fifty years.

    William – Lewisville, TX

  • Well, I want to give you some positive feedback. Good article! I have traveled to Cuba on a Rotary humanitarian project (a few years ago). It is a beautiful country and most of the people seem happy with their system of government. There certainly are thousands of tourists from all other parts of the world (many from Canada). I agree that the ban needs to be ended. Our country just needs to come to grips that other countries do not have to want to be like us.

  • “I realize there are those who feel the Cuban state is at fault for all this. I say that of the things the Cuban state is at fault for, this is not one of them. We have and enforce laws punish people who travel to Cuba and trade with Cuba.”

    Maybe there are those whose hatred is enough not to see this paragraph, fail to understand it, or lie deliberately.

  • Graham, first read comment #1. Second, the best way Americans can learn more about Cuba is by CUBA allowing a free and independent media to cover news in Cuba. As a corollary to this point, Cuba should allow international media outlets liike CNN, El Pais, Le Monde, New York Times, etc. unrestricted access to cover stories that emerge without the threat of losing press credentials if the story is unflattering to the Castros. Even with these reforms, there is no guarantee that Americans will have a greater interest or knowledge about Cuba. There is a civil war raging in the Sudan and very few Americans are even aware of it. We have no travel restrictions to Sudan nor an embargo yet their story is not being told by the American media to the American people. However, take heart. The day Fidel dies, or Raul announces open and free elections (or when pigs fly) Cuba will make front page news and Americans, not just those who live in Miami, will have a whole new perspective about Cuba. Happy now? By the way, if you are tongue-tied as to what Cuba could do FIRST to engender support for Obama to further relax travel restrictions, how about allowing a free press. Myanmar just authorized this common freedom. They are no worse for the wear.

  • …all about how America must change, but not a word about how Cuba ought to change.

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