By Roger Bowen
In January 2000, I led a small university delegation to Havana. We were in Cuba to meet with Cuban government officials and Cuban academic leaders to discuss the possibility of setting up academic exchanges. Relations with Cuba were thawing in the Clinton administration’s final year in office; our delegation was able to fly nonstop from JFK to Havana, an easy 3.5-hour flight.
In the six months prior to visiting Cuba, I had been to Guyaquil, Ecuador, to receive an honorary degree from a university with which my own university had an academic exchange. I was struck then by the armed guards standing at the gates of luxury homes within the city; and the overwhelming noxious odor of garbage fires burning at street sides throughout the city. In the same six months, I made my first trip to Puerto Rico, where my lasting impression was of abundant trash strewn alongside decrepit roads and more sickly looking stray dogs and cats than I’ve ever seen anywhere.
In contrast, Havana did not have the armed guards, the burning trash or the roadside litter and stray animals. Havana was an open, well-tended and welcoming city. Pride of place was obvious. I commented on this observation to the Cuban minister of health, an urbane doctor who had invited our delegation to his modest home in Havana. His house was neither gated nor guarded. He joked that Cuban government ministers were not wealthy enough to afford guards and that gates barring the public was contrary to Cuban ethics.
I was introduced to one of Cuba’s top academic specialists dedicated to American studies. I was surprised at his claim that the American embargo had only served to strengthen Castro’s regime and to undergird what he called the “very ill Cuban economy.” He asked why the United States would embrace China, another communist regime, and not an American nation located 90 miles from its shore. I assured him that domestic U.S. politics, especially the Cuban-American community in Florida, was the principal reason. We both congratulated the other for telling what we regarded as the unvarnished truth.
One of the members in our delegation was a Jewish history professor whose family, escaping the Holocaust, had taken refuge in Cuba after being denied permission to enter the United States just prior to America’s entry into World War II. We asked our driver to help us find his home, and he did. When we arrived, and after explaining who we were, our seven-person delegation was invited into the tiny house and served coffee by its indigent inhabitants. We asked to see Ernest Hemingway’s home located outside of Havana and were allowed entry without restriction. We asked to see newly built European coastal resorts and at the entrance of one of these read the sign, “Cubans not permitted.” We all observed aged European-looking men picking up Cuban prostitutes who were standing outside our downtown Havana hotel.
The academic exchange that resulted from this visit was terribly one-sided: students and professors from my campus were allowed six-week study tours of Cuba for the next two years and some Cuban art was permitted to adorn our college’s gallery, but no Cubans were given visas to teach or study at my college. Contemporaneously, however, Uzbekistan economists — all trained in the Marxian tradition — were given visas to study at my college, even though Uzbekistan’s political leaders were as, if not more, authoritarian than Cuba’s. USAID at that time was courting the repressive government of Uzbekistan because it was then allowing the American military to operate a military base there.
President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba is a positive step forward. Cuba has a vibrant culture, a hospitable population and an eagerness to boost its economy by trading with its nearby American neighbor. Its authoritarian regime is slowly liberalizing under Fidel’s ancient younger brother, Raul, who may in his heart remain wedded to Marxist precepts but who also recognizes that an injection of Yankee capitalism will likely help raise standards of living for the Cuban population.
Roger Bowen is president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz and is a resident of Prospect Harbor.