During the beginning of the trip, Ryan commented “I find it depressing that they scheduled a meeting with the U.S. Interests section on our last day in Cuba. It's like they're planning ahead and know some of us will lose our passports.”
Although the U.S. Interests section is where we would go if we'd lost our passports, it would have been in a very different capacity. We (by which I mean our professors and tour guide) had scheduled a meeting with the American Civil Services Chief. We had to show our passports four different times to get in.
The first time was right as we got off the bus and we went in groups of four to a security checkpoint. We'd hand them the passports, they looked us over, and then we went in through the gate.
Then we had to take everything out of our pockets, hand over our passports, and go to the metal detector. We'd been warned not to bring purses or cameras, but hadn't heard anything about USB drives. The day before I had rummaged all through my luggage to find one, and then this morning I'd found the other one I thought I'd lost, so I was carrying too. When the security guard told me I needed to hand them over at the top of the stairs, my first reaction was “I wish I hadn't just found my other one.”
We went up some stairs and actually entered a building where, surprise surprise, we had to hand over our passports for another security check. I eventually managed to hand over my my USB drives and got in return a laminated sheet of paper with the words “Visitor 95” on it, which gave me a hope of seeing them again.
Then we traded our passports for a bade. This time I was Visitor 17, and the line at the bottom said “escort required.”
It as all very exciting and over in about a third the time it should have taken. We'd been told to schedule ourselves half an hour to get through security, but it didn't take more than ten minutes. I think that's the first time since leaving for Cuba that something's taken less time than it was supposed to.
Because we were early, we had someone else step in to fill time and give a little exposition. And then Rocco Costa came in, and the other official gleefully left with a “Now he can answer all of your questions. 'When will the Embargo end?' 'When are you releasing the Miami Five?' 'When can we see Fidel?'
We didn't directly ask any of those questions. The closest was asking what the exchange of the Miami Five for Alan Gross would do. “First of all, we are not considering any such exchange. Alan Gross was a civilian, and not a spy. Things would almost have been better for him if he had in fact been working for the U.S. Government, since we exchange intelligence agents for intelligence agents. But Alan Gross was not an intelligence agent, whereas the Miami 5 clearly were. Furthermore, the Miami Five is actually the Miami Four now, and will soon be the Miami Three. One of them was released recently, and another will be released soon. However, it would ruin their nice slogans like 'Obama give me Five!' so they tend not to emphasize that in the press. But one of them is home and living with his family, probably as a hero, right now.”
He talked a bit about his own experience in Havana. Because the United States has as “interests section” and not an embassy, they are somewhat reliant on Switzerland. (It's the same for Cubans in D.C.) He made a point out of saying that it wasn't terribly reliant, mostly they just needed the Swiss for letterheads and license plates.
Although the U.S. and Cuba aren't friendly, he doesn't really have hostile interactions with his peers in Cuba. Mostly, he doesn't have interactions. Foreign service agents are restricted to a 25-mile radius (I wonder if he was jealous of how far we could go) though they can request a leave to go farther, and in the past year or so Cuba has been granting it. Because Cuba is considered a “hard” area, he's here for 2 years, not three. He laughed as he said that, so I think he likes Cuba just fine.
I forget what the question was, but there was an answer which included the phrase “Sales tax is 94-96%.” After we left, some people were expressing doubt about that figure. I'd believe it, simply because the average annual salary of Cubans is so low. You wouldn't want to give an advantage to salespeople like that. Of course, that doesn't mean shopkeepers are accurately keeping track of what is sold or at what price it is sold, so there is still some advantage.
He talked a little about immigration. One of our professors had mentioned that ten years ago, the lines of Cubans outside the Interests section had been extremely long, and she hadn't noticed that today. The response was twofold. First of all, it looks bad for the Cuban government when there are that many people who want to leave, so they try and limit the number of people standing there at any point in time. The other reason is that the U.S. has started granting more visas, both tourist and living.
And of course we asked him about the embargo. That's one of the things we'd come here to study. We didn't ask “when will it end,” directly, but we did ask roundabout questions that hinted at the same idea.
During the classes before we went to Cuba, one of our teachers had given his opinion on what he thought the U.S. should do with regards to Cuba. He was in favor of an immediate end to the embargo and travel restrictions. Flood Cuba, and leave them to figure out where they're going when they have the sudden influx of goods and ideas and people. I disagreed with him completely, so it was nice when Rocco Costa started talking and I realized the two of us had the same ideas.
Cubans hate the embargo. For the average Cuban, the embargo means restricted access to medicine, restricted access to food, potatoes being expensive, etc. But the embargo plays a huge role in shaping Cuba's identity. It also plays a decent role in winning international sympathy. Cuba is a tiny country that has the support of every other nation in the world except the United States, Israel, Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. The United States and Israel are the only countries in favor of the embargo.
Cuba is also fragile. I noticed that a bit in the readings we had to do before the class, and a bit while I was there. It's not like it's on the verge of collapse, but a sudden end to the embargo would be enough to shake a stable country. It would probably shatter Cuba.
For an example, consider their health care. It, along with the literacy rate, is one of the things that Cuba loves to boast about. And it is very good. Without easy access to medicines sold in the United States, it has needed to develop its own biotech industry. Without easy access to medicines sold in the United States, it has needed to create a rather stunning implementation of preventive care.
If you start to get sick in Cuba, you call a doctor. They have the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world, and there's one in your neighborhood who is on call 24/7. You might go from there to a clinic, or, if it's more serious, to the hospital. You stay until you feel better, and even if you're at home, you'd have a nurse coming by to administer medicine. Minus the part where you need to bring your own bedsheets because you can't trust them to be clean, it sounds pretty good. And, of course, healthcare is covered by the state.
It's not a perfect system, but it's working pretty well for Cuba. Now imagine an immediate end to the embargo and travel restrictions. While the doctors are still trying to figure out what to do with the medication they can now get, the hospitals might become flooded with Americans who are here for cheap health care. For the doctors who are earning less than a tour guide (no generous foreigners to tip them) this might be the last straw that makes them leave.
It's hard to predict, but Cuba's infrastructure isn't that stable. If the United States were to end the embargo all at once, the Cuban government would need to step in and regulate what can and can't come in. It would take away the main enemy Cuba has had since the revolution and stir some discontent among the people. A sudden end to the embargo would be one of the cruelest things the United States could do that would still have the support of the world.
The embargo is still a problem, though, and should not be continued indefinitely. Rather, it should be gradually lifted. Rocco Costa suggested a series of smaller steps, and listed the first three. The first, loosening travel estrictions, has already happened. After all, we were sitting there talking with him. The second was to allow certain industries to come in. I'm not sure which industries, but probably allow them in one at a time and giving Cuba time to adjust to each of them would be the best way to go. Third, allowing full-fledged diplomatic status. (That could have been biased, given who we were talking to. Swiss letterheads aren't that pretty.)
Although I agree with a gentle lifting of the embargo, I think there's an important step that can happen right away. Cuba is on the U.S. List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The three other countries with that distinction are Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The Cuban government has said many times that they do not support terrorism, and there has been no indication that they are lying, but they've been on the list since 1982. Its presence on this list is part of why neither Cuban currency has any value outside of Cuba.
Between its own government and the United States government, Cuba is in a delicate position. It's complicated by their reluctance to communicate with each other, and it's hard to say what consequences certain changes can make.
I like Cuba. I want to be able to come back. I want other people to be able to go there. I'd like to see the steps occur to make that possible.