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Thursday, May 26, 2005 04:16 pm

Lift the ban

If I hadn’t just returned from Cuba, I would have read about John Bolton’s recent confirmation woes with a bit less apprehension. Bolton wanted a U.S. biological-weapons specialist to substantiate his claim that Cuba has biological weapons. Refusing to back up the erroneous and dangerous claim, the expert disclosed that he was being harassed by Bolton’s aides. That was bad enough in and of itself, but it was terrifying when I thought of the hope-filled Cubans I had just met on our Witness for Peace delegation — beautiful children, committed professionals, trendy teens, grandmothers with treasured memories. These people have been put at risk by political hard-liners seeking excuses for the United States to advance its claim that Cuba is a terrorist state getting ready to strike. To have any sense of the island, you really must see Cuba and be touched by her people; stroll the Malicon, a seawall along the coastline in Havana, and taste the salt spray; hear live son music and feel its rhythms in your heart; and smell the sweet mariposa, the national flower of Cuba. Unfortunately, you can’t. Unless you are a member of a single reli gious denomination — not an ecumenical group — and your church has a Sunday School; or you are a college student interested in studying beyond a semester; or you are the sibling, child, parent, grandchild, or grandparent of a Cuban resident (other family relationships won’t do, no matter how close you are), you will not be visiting Cuba. Furthermore, U.S. citizens who are relatives of Cubans will be allowed to visit no more than once every three years, and only if they are approved for a special permit by the U.S. government. In addition, remittances — monetary gifts from U.S. relatives, relied upon by many citizens of Third World countries — are now severely restricted. As U.S. citizens, our government allows us to travel anywhere in the world but Cuba. The travel ban removes from all of us the ability to learn more about some of our closest neighbors in the hemisphere, share our values with the Cuban people, and enjoy the beauty of a land just 90 miles from our coast. According to Witness for Peace, an amendment to the travel ban, or at least its enforcement, has passed the House of Representatives, generally by large majorities, and in 2003 passed the Senate for the first time. Our government’s excuse for further tightening the noose around Cuba is “to bring freedom [translated as free trade for the U.S.] to the Cuban people,” according to Consul General Richard Beer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. But during a visit to lobby our congressmen to vote to lift the travel ban, one staffer admitted that the reason for this policy is simply retribution against Fidel Castro. Of course, it would take a course on the Cuban Revolution to understand why it started and how it got where it is today. But I came away with the belief that the revolution has been fluid and surprisingly responsive to the challenges it has faced, not at all the stagnant Soviet-style behemoth that neoconservatives and a small but vocal group of Miami Cubans would have us believe. As a social worker, I have a favorable impression of a country that has made an ongoing commitment to the health and education of its citizens. I recognize and do not accept the idea that most Cuban citizens cannot determine their individual futures and freedom of speech is all but stifled. We trade with governments, such as Colombia, that have far more severe human-rights issues than Cuba. And although Cuba is a long way from a free society, I must believe that their people experience far more equitable overall treatment — no homeless or starving poor; excellent health care; subsidies for housing, utilities, and food; a 97 percent literacy rate; and an average education to the 11th grade — than in our own Land of the Free. The United States has taken its self-proclaimed maker-of-democracy status to a frightening extreme: No country has the right to determine the fate of another. It’s up to our citizens to call upon Congress to lift the long-outmoded embargo, including the travel ban and trade restrictions, and welcome the Cuban people and their government on their own terms.

Diane Lopez Hughes is the convenor of Pax Christi Springfield, a Catholic peace-and-justice organization. She and Peg Sower Knoepfle of Springfield toured Cuba last month as part of an 18-member Witness for Peace delegation.

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