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Ashlanders visit Cuba as relations thaw

With new American ties to Cuba, locals have been tripping to the once-off-limits island nation, where they say they found a colorful society where everyone has access to medical care, but where the lack of economic opportunity is stifling.

A cloud hangs over Cuba — a 56-year-old embargo that Cubans hope they can move past, says Associate Minister Paula Sohl of Ashland Congregational United Church of Christ.

"They’d like it lifted. There are lots of things they can’t get,” says Sohl, who went to Cuba for 12 days as part of a Pastors for Peace delegation.

When members of the delegation needed medical care on the trip, they were admitted quickly and without insurance or payments, says Joanne Navickas of Ashland, a member of the group.

“Cuba really cares about people. They care about children and old people,” says Navickas. “The medical was all taken care of. We saw no homelessness. They are always looking for different things to make life better. Their whole education is free.”

The group attended a graduation from the Latin American School of Medicine, with students from all over the world, including the U.S., says Navickas.

“It was pretty impressive. They attend free and then send students to poor areas to be doctors. It’s a wonderful thing they’re providing the world,” she notes.

Not everyone is enthralled with all things Cuban. Dissidents in the island nation say they continue to be harassed and arrested for expressing political views contrary to the Cuban government's or for pointing out problems in the country. 

There are other basic issues in Cuba, Sohl notes, including little variety in the food, little air conditioning for the intense heat and toilets that don’t work very well.

While dissidents and government supporters alike have expressed support for improving relations with the United States, that doesn't mean they want their country to emulate their northern neighbor.

“They don’t want big corporations moving in and setting up on every street corner," Sohl says. "They’re very specific about who they will let in, and it’s not MacDonald's.”

The Ashland group visited several businesses that were joint projects of government and private enterprise, where property was rented from the government, salaries were “fairly equal” and, says Sohl, profits were shared at the end of every year.

In general, she says, “The people were incredibly creative and warm. Their way of living is that the needs of all are taken into account. It’s tranquilo, as they say."

Former Congressman and Southern Oregon University instructor Les AuCoin recently visited with a group of former U.S. members of Congress, meeting with Cuban officials and business entrepreneurs who are working for establishment of full relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

The group met with Josefina Vidal, Cuban leader of the bilateral working group that was encouraged by Pope Francis to re-establish diplomatic relations. That group, says AuCoin, seeks to enable President Obama, by executive order, to “make broad exemptions” to the embargo, without having to change the law.

In return, he adds, Cuba would honor American credit cards and make it easier for Americans to engage in commerce with Cuba. Another quid pro quo, he says, would be the release of arrested dissidents in Cuba, some 300 of whom have already been let go.

A factor in Cuban-American relations, AuCoin notes, will be the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

“They didn’t have to even say it, that the embargo would remain,” says AuCoin, referring to one of the likely results of a Republican victory. “The repeated obstacles in Congress mean it’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

While there may be political hay to be made in the U.S. over an embargo of the once-Communist nation, AuCoin says it opens the door for China to “move in on all of Latin America — and Cuba is number one for them."

"It’s clear to me the embargo has failed," AuCoin says. "It’s an out-of-date embargo from the Eisenhower administration against a tiny island nation that is no threat to us. It’s stupid.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and nationalized more than $1 billion in U.S. assets. President John F. Kennedy formally enacted the embargo in 1962.

Cuba now uses the embargo for political ends, AuCoin says, “as an excuse for everything that’s gone wrong in the country and to deflect blame from their economic planners.”

He says Cubans are paid an average of $25 a month from the government and long to have the opportunity to do better for themselves and their families.

“The Cuban revolution is failing,” says AuCoin. "It’s an economic system that’s inoperable and that’s why young Cubans want to leave. ... I believe if we build on normalization of relations and allow western capital to come in and the Internet to be accessible, the pressure will be irresistible and the government will have to get out of the way or there will be a counter-revolution.”

AuCoin, who served 18 years in Congress from a northwest Oregon district, says the normalization of relations between the two countries will be a series of steps, building in momentum toward a complete lifting of the embargo.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Images of Raul and Fidel Castro adorn a wall surrounding the words 'Revolution is unity, independence is to fight for our dreams for justice for Cuba and the world.' SUBMITTED PHOTO
Former Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin stands in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, which reopened this summer after being closed for more than half a century. SUBMITTED PHOTO