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Posted May 24, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By Paul LeBon | Contributing Columnist | Lewisville Leader

In the 1980s, while employed by a major U.S. air carrier, I took advantage of my access to worldwide travel and visited many unique locations. Among the locations off the beaten path I visited were Eastern Europe and the island of Cuba. At the time, both were under control of the slowly crumbling Soviet Union.

In Eastern Europe, I traveled to Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. I found the people very friendly and welcoming - in spite of the “U.S. military buildup” that President Reagan had overseen since his election in 1980. I also found CNN in my hotel rooms. Reagan had lifted the ban on travel to these countries, and the number of Americans traveling there and establishing bonds with the people was growing every year.

I came home to my hotel one afternoon and found the maid with her three children in my room watching CNN as she cleaned the room! They were very curious about life in the United States and our way of life. By the end of my stay, we’d become well acquainted and I left them with some of my American clothes.

The night the Berlin Wall fell, I watched it in awe from home as did many Americans. Though many claimed that it was the Reagan military buildup that had led to that historic moment, I believe that his relaxing the rules of travel to Eastern Bloc countries was just as significant. I also credit CNN with helping educate those living under Communist oppression that our way of life was so much better than what they were experiencing.

I also visited the island of Cuba with two friends in 1988. Though we were only 90 miles from the United States, we felt that we’d gone back in time to a strange place. Yes, the cars were old ‘50s vintage Chevys and Fords, and the people were somewhat friendly, they lacked the warmth and curiosity that those in Eastern Europe had shown. I guess it’s because we were an oddity - tourists from a hostile country which bans travel and commerce with their nation.

There was no CNN in our hotel. People we spoke with had no idea of life in the United States except for baseball. They believed that we were this powerful nation that would not help them in any way, so their only choice was Castro and his Soviet sponsors.

Fifteen years later, little has changed. Sure there was Elian Gonzales and his crazy Miami relatives who grabbed headlines trying to keep him from his father, but that only inflamed relations between our countries. Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, but his arrival and visit was trumped off the U.S. newspapers and television news shows by the breaking of the Lewinsky saga, so the Holy Father’s trip went unnoticed.

For more than 40 years, Fidel Castro has ruled the island nation after a revolution against the corrupt Baptista regime. He is now facing his 10th U.S. president and remains strong as ever. Lately, Castro has done some foolish things, and how does our government respond? By hardening its stand against him, which only continues to hurt his people. Expelling Cuban diplomats from the United States. Basically, doing all the things that have failed for more than 40 years.

In April 2000 when he was still a retired general and doing the speaker’s circuit, I had the opportunity and honor to be a presenter at a corporate conference where Colin Powell was to be the keynote speaker. Privately off stage, then later in the general session, I asked his thoughts on Cuba. He responded that our policies had failed for four decades and we should take a new approach in the new century.

I wish he could convince his boss of that. Unfortunately I fear that President Bush - mindful of his close call in Florida in the 2000 election—is playing to the banana Republicans along 8th street in Miami: the Cuban immigrant population. He had hardened his stand and our policy, just as trade agreements were being put in place between our countries.

If he were to issue an executive order striking down the ban on personal travel to Cuba, the Castro regime would fall within months. With thousands of friendly American tourists descending on the island, its inhabitants would come to know us as the kindly, good natured people that we are. They could learn from us of about our way of life, and begin to yearn for the same - without having to navigate a rickety raft through shark infested waters. CNN may even make it to hotel TV sets.

My mother always said you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I believe the way to catch the Cuban people and to make them our friends and long for our way of life is to have them experience our personal sweetness, not be embittered by our angry antagonistic attitude towards one man that negatively impacts a country of 8 million.

Paul LeBon, author of “Escape from Voicemail Hell,” is a Highland Village-based freelance columnist. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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