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Posted March 24, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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By U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, Tampa Democrat

Just 90 miles from Florida’s shores lies a country with whom America’s history, culture, economy and people are tightly intertwined. Yet our nations’ diplomatic relationship remains severed.

For more than 40 years, the United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba in an effort to pressure Fidel Castro to bring democracy and basic rights to the people there. While I have voted to maintain the embargo, Congress must seek alternatives and find ways for the United States and Cuba to pursue a more-positive relationship to the mutual benefit of our people.

REALITIES REVEALED

I recently took a fact-finding tour through Cuba. Traveling with Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, and members of the Inter-American Dialogue, I met Cuban government officials, human-rights and religious community leaders, economic analysts, policymakers and average citizens to gain a comprehensive picture of the economic, political and social realities.

The experience made me more determined to help improve America’s relationship with the Cuban people. The Cubans whom I met are much like the Cuban Americans in Florida—enormously talented, highly educated and ambitious. Unfortunately, Cubans are trapped under a repressive regime that has denied them an opportunity to use their talents to make better lives.

Indeed, Cuba is a country of great contradictions and unlimited potential. It has one of the highest literacy rates in the Western hemisphere, but the average individual income is $12 a month. The Cuban government provides its people with universal health care, but many hospitals have a shortage of basic medical supplies, like surgical gloves.

Despite a minimal safety net and some economic reforms over the past decade, most Cubans live in poverty. Most of the homes that we saw provided merely a roof overhead and the barest necessities. With few exceptions, everyone who has a job works for the government, at very low wages, and is prohibited from outside work to supplement their income.

In addition, the Cuban peso is so deflated that Cuban citizens earning only pesos are at an extreme disadvantage compared to those earning tips in U.S. dollars. As a result, Cuba’s professional workers, such as doctors and teachers, earn significantly less than Cuba’s taxi drivers, bartenders and illegal vendors. This situation only compounds the frustration of the Cuban people.

In 1993, the Cuban government legalized self-employment for 150 occupations. We saw some Cubans selling goods in markets, and we ate at one of several paladares, restaurants in residents’ homes. Unfortunately, these precious few businesses are heavily taxed by the government.

Controlling virtually all employment opportunities helps the Cuban government control any dissent by its people. Fortunately, some Cubans have the remarkable courage to speak up in the name of freedom.

We went to the home of Oswaldo Pay, leader of the Varela Project, to talk with him and his wife about their effort to empower Cubans. Pay and supporters have gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition calling on the Cuban government to give Cuban citizens basic rights, including the right to start their own businesses, publicly speak out against government policies and run for office independent of the Communist Party.

We also attempted, unsuccessfully, to see Dr. Oscar Elas Biscet, recently imprisoned for meeting with others to discuss their opposition to the government.

Only the Cuban people can plant the seeds of change in Cuba, but we can help these efforts grow. Congress should support reform efforts. I am encouraging my colleagues who plan to travel to Cuba to visit with Pay and Dr. Biscet, in addition to government officials.

During my meeting with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, I called on his government to support the freedoms that these reformers seek and expressed outrage over the arrests of supporters of the Varela Project. I also told Alarcon that, for the sake of Cubans and Americans alike, I hope to begin a frank, constructive dialogue between our governments.

Now that I have returned, I plan to explore why the medical exemption to the economic embargo is not working. While touring Faustino Perez University Hospital in Matanzas, we heard from doctors about the extreme shortage of basic medical supplies and prescription drugs. I will work with my colleagues in Congress and others to give the Cuban people the ability to buy the supplies and drugs they so desperately need.

COMMON GROUND

Cuba and the United States are linked in countless ways. Despite our differences, there are many areas where we can work together.

It is also important that those who have staked out opposite positions on the embargo learn to work together. Congress can only do so much—those working to help the average Cuban citizens must find common ground. I will continue working with people who have different views on these issues in search of new ways to improve the lives of Cuban people.

I hope that my trip will serve as a basis for greater dialogue between the Cuban and United States governments and an improved relationship between our countries.

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