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Thursday, June 18, 2015


Sunrise: Cienfuegos, Cuba, April 2015
Editor’s note: 

In 1961, the United States shuttered its embassy in Cuba, breaking off diplomatic relations as Fidel Castro imposed a repressive communist regime, embraced the Soviet Union, and expropriated private property.  Strict travel restrictions were imposed, and President Kennedy instituted an embargo on trade and financial transactions.  Fifty-four years later, our country is on the verge of recognizing Cuba and opening a formal embassy in Havana. 

Along with two of my Senate colleagues, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Cuba to meet with high-level government officials, Cardinal Ortega of the Catholic Church, Cuban entrepreneurs, members of the Havana community, including scientists and the operators of a website, and ambassadors representing other nations in Cuba. 

Our Delegation with Chief Negotiator Josephina Vidal
and other Cuban officials.
 Photo courtesy of Sen. Collins
It was a fascinating trip that has made me better informed about the changing and challenging relationship between our two countries.

We met with Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel, who has been designated as President Raul Castro’s successor when the Cuban President retires in 2018.  The fact that the President is chosen by the regime is a reminder that while Cuba is changing and the Vice President represents a younger generation more open to economic and social reforms, Cuba remains a one-party state where serious political challenges are not tolerated. 

Vice President Diaz Canel spoke of the economic reforms that are allowing limited private ownership of businesses such as restaurants and barber shops.  In particular, the private restaurants known as “paladars” have boomed, featuring better food and service than the state-run enterprises.  I had an excellent Cuban meal of black beans and rice, fried banana chips, and slow-roasted glazed pork at one of the privately run paladars.

Recent People to People tour to Cuba shared a birthday
in a (paladar) home turned restaurant on Cienfuego Bay.
Photography by Bruce Henderson
Cuban families are converting their homes to restaurants and are eagerly embracing the opportunity to build a better life and to escape the grinding poverty that is pervasive despite a high literacy rate that in freer countries would equate to a higher standard of living.  Some of the paladars are financed by loans or gifts from Cuban-American relatives.

Cuba faces shortages of many foods, including potatoes, and has no dairy industry so that the imported milk is either powdered or boxed.  Ration books provide milk for children only up to age 7.  With the exception of the ubiquitous bananas and guavas, fruit and vegetables are hard to come by, although the private restaurants seemed more resourceful in obtaining them.

Senator Collins (right) speaking with Deborah Rivas Saavedra, Cuban Director of Investments (left)
In my meetings with Cuban officials regarding the potential for increased trade, I pointed out that Maine would be an excellent source of seed potatoes, blueberries, and other foods given our thriving agricultural sector.

During other meetings with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Northern American Affairs Director Josefina Vidal, we discussed the significant progress being made toward opening both a U.S. embassy in Havana and a Cuban embassy in Washington as well as eliminating current travel restrictions. 

I favor lifting the travel restrictions on Americans who wish to go to Cuba, believing that the more exposure Cubans have to Americans, the more Cuban officials will be pressured to provide new freedoms to their people.  I also believe that our government should be very hesitant about imposing restrictions on our citizens’ right to travel, a basic freedom, except to war zones or under other exceptional circumstances. 

Like the Cuban negotiator Josefina Vidal, our chief negotiator is also a talented woman, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson.  One of her chief aides is from Maine:  Daniel Erikson, an author of a book on Cuba and State Department expert who briefed me prior to my trip. 

Cuba is in desperate need of investment.  Havana is a beautiful historic city with extraordinary architecture, lovely parks, and magnificent churches, but is marred by crumbling buildings, a deteriorating infrastructure, and an unsanitary water supply.

While central parts of the city and “Old Havana” have been maintained or restored to the days of the city’s past glory, one has only to travel down virtually any side street to see abject poverty and piles of rubble as buildings literally fall down onto the streets.

Facing that reality, the Cuban government is now encouraging foreign investment.  During a meeting with Deborah Rivas Saavedra, the Director of Investments, and two of her colleagues, I asked how the Cuban government could expect the American hospitality industry to invest when they would be prohibited from owning the land on which they would build a resort and would be in fear of their hotel being seized should it become successful. 

The Director replied that investors would be granted a 99-year lease, and that the new economic reforms would protect foreign investors. 

Certainly, the possibility of a successful tourism industry looms large for Cuba should these guarantees become a reality.  Cuba is, after all, only 90 miles from Florida, and in addition to historic Havana, features pristine beaches in other parts of the island, I am told.

Perhaps the most interesting person with whom we met was Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino.  A highly intelligent, charming, and ebullient man, Cardinal Ortega played a key role in the negotiations between the Cuban and American governments that led to the exchange of Alan Gross, a U.S. AID subcontractor who had been wrongfully imprisoned for five years, and a Cuban national, who had been working for the United States and had been in prison for 20 years, for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States.  His detailed and fascinating story of the negotiations, which involved the intervention of Pope Francis, had all the intrigue of a spy novel.

Cardinal Ortega, Senators Collins and Flake
Cardinal Ortega has been criticized by both the Communist government and by some in the Cuban dissident community.  He clearly has to walk a fine line, but his advocacy has led to the release of political prisoners and to greater religious freedom for the Cuban people. 

Along with the U.S. chief of mission, I attended mass at the Cathedral in Havana, and the Cardinal made a point of welcoming us from the pulpit and devoted a large part of his sermon, in both Spanish and English, to the Pope’s hope for a better relationship between our two countries. 

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had heavily subsidized the Cuban economy, the Catholic Church has played a major role in attempting to ease the plight of the poorest Cubans.  I met with a Cuban citizen before my trip, and he urged me to bring small sizes of toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and other toiletries, all in short supply and too expensive for the poor to purchase.  My staffer and I did so and gave them to the Church to distribute. 

At the request of the Cuban government, I also had a separate meeting with three physicians who have developed what appears to be a breakthrough treatment for curing serious leg and foot ulcers that can lead to amputations in older individuals with diabetes.  (Clearly, the Cubans had done their research on me and knew that I have chaired the Diabetes Caucus in the Senate for many years.)  

Largely because of the embargo and despite partnering with a French firm, these physicians are encountering difficulties in securing U.S. government permission to conduct clinical trials in the United States with the possibility of commercializing their new pharmaceutical treatment. 

If this treatment is as promising as the doctors portrayed, trade barriers should not be allowed to prevent it from benefitting Americans whose diabetes puts them at risk of losing a leg or a foot.

I left Cuba hopeful that our two countries can move forward to a constructive new relationship that will prompt Cuba to modernize and provide more freedoms to its citizens.  Economic and social reforms should pave the way to a better life for the Cuban people, including eventually a freer political future.  In my judgment, a more normal diplomatic relationship between two countries only 90 miles from one another is the right direction for our nation to pursue, while ever mindful that we will be dealing with a one-party government determined to hold on to its power.   

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