Increase travel to Cuba to encourage reform from within


Colorado has distinctive ties to Cuba that make the state of U.S.-Cuban relations and the current crackdown on peaceful protests on the island of tremendous significance to our state. Colorado businesses have long been interested in business opportunities with Cuba, and several delegations from Coloradans visit the island each year and engage in cultural and humanitarian exchanges.

Anna Alejo

It was a Coloradan, Dr. Steve Berman, who co-led the first delegation of American doctors to Cuba as part of a collaborative initiative to improve child health care in both countries. At a time of aggressive American expansionism, it was a United States Senator from Colorado, Henry M. Teller, who sponsored the 1898 amendment banning the annexation of Cuba.

A historic moment of opportunity has arrived in Cuba, with a movement overwhelmingly led by young Cubans of color, many of whom belong to the creative class of artists and writers. While the future will be up to Cubans to decide, the United States and Colorado can play a constructive role.

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When Fidel Castro marched victoriously on the historic city of Santiago in January 1959, he spoke of a revolution “characterized precisely by its novelty, by the fact that it will do things that have never been done before.” As Ada Ferrer recounts in her exquisitely written book, Cuba, An American History, this statement was meant to signify that the Revolution would not be like those that preceded it in Cuba.

The Revolution was differentiated from the past by its longevity (which now spans over six decades), the expropriation of private assets, and an anemic state-controlled economy. And, sadly, it has also proven more effective than previous regimes in entrenching one-person power and suppressing dissent, including the imprisonment, exile and murder of charismatic voices of the opposition.

This intolerance of dissent has drawn renewed attention with the government’s response last July and November to protests by artists and others demanding reform. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the European Union have condemned the arrest, ill-treatment and continued detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters, many of them under the age of 18, and the harassment of hundreds more. Many protesters currently on trial face up to 30 years in prison.

And so the question arises as to how the United States should respond. First, we must reframe our approach, recognizing as historian Louis A. Pérez has written, that “much of what passes for ‘Cuba’s foreign relations’ is actually Cuba portrayed as a country acting on and without agency; Cuba as an object of history, not as a subject…as a colony of Spain, as a client of the United States, as a proxy for the Soviet Union…according to the history of another country.

With this in mind, consider the role of the US embargo on Cuba which has been at the center of much debate. The embargo — specifically the parts codified in law — is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon by a deeply divided Congress. Although with limited exceptions to the embargo on the export of food, medicine, and medical supplies, the United States has remained among Cuba’s top trading partners for the past two decades.

During several trips to Cuba, I have heard many Cuban entrepreneurs want the embargo to be lifted. But their main focus is a passionate dedication to contributing to a diverse economy and social vitality that improves the lives of all Cubans. This is their Cuban-led vision of the future, and their greatest frustration in realizing that future is with the policies and practices of their own government.

The Cuban government has recently taken steps to develop the private sector, licensing hundreds of small and medium-sized private enterprises and advancing a proposal allowing, for the first time, foreign direct investment in these enterprises. But stifling restrictions remain on the size, categories and expansion of private enterprises; and the Cuban government has the absolute power under its “Decree Law 149” to confiscate companies that have engaged in “undue enrichment”.

Beyond condemnations and sanctions, US policy should focus on supporting the aspirations of Cubans, both artists who bravely raise their voices and those working in entrepreneurial ventures.

The Biden administration recently shared that it has “pressed the pause button” on US policy towards Cuba. But the United States should move forward with easing travel restrictions and limits on remittances to support the Cuban people, as candidate Biden has pledged to do.

Even though domestic politics in Florida has shifted significantly in favor of a harder line on Cuba, it’s worth noting that two-thirds of Cuban-Americans in South Florida support the resumption of air travel since then. the United States to all parts of the island, and about half of Cuban-American families send remittances to loved ones.

Although the role of the Cuban military in remittances raises valid concerns, the main beneficiaries are the two-thirds of Cubans who depend on help from family abroad, including many Cuban entrepreneurs who represent the best hope for a transition to a free market economy.

The time has come for the Biden administration to lift its finger from the “pause button” and no longer delay targeted and urgent actions to support the Cuban people.

Anna Alejo of Denver led 10X10K Cuba in Colorado, an initiative to support Cuban entrepreneurs, and is a member of the board of directors of World Denver. She travels frequently to Cuba.

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