Thompson: Jury is still out on Obama’s Cuba policy

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

This week, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years, a move some have hailed as crucial to the lifting of restrictions between the United States and the Latin American nation.

Obama deserves credit for pushing to end some of the decades-long U.S. restrictions on Cuba that have severely impacted the communist nation’s ability to do business in this country.

But Obama’s history-making visit will not change living conditions for the majority of the 11 million Cubans who today live in abject poverty. CNN reported this week that the average monthly salary in Cuba is $20.

As long as Cuba remains under the strong autocratic rule of Gen. Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro, and political prisoners and human rights activists languish in jail, and religious institutions are suppressed, the lifting of the U.S. embargo won’t do much.

Yes, it makes sense for Cuban-Americans and tourists to travel to the island and for U.S. corporations to open dialogue around the possibilities of trade. But the people of Cuba need more than tourism and prospective trading partnerships to lift them from the shackles of longstanding poverty and misery.

“I would like to see the United States make certain demands of the Cuban government. Among them are some basic civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion,” said Mariano Pallares, a Cuban-American and former professor of Latin American affairs at Oakland University. “Obama’s trip is rubbing salt on an open wound, a wound that won’t heal until Cuba is free again.”

Pallares said the notion that trade with the United States will help Cuba is a pipe dream.

“Cuba has been doing business with most of the world including power houses like France and Germany, yet the Cubans have not benefited from this economic bonanza,” Pallares said. “Reason is that all the money entering Cuba goes directly into government coffers and the government then pays the Cubans in Cuban peso, the worthless currency. The system is not only broken, it is immoral. Cubans are virtually slaves of the state.”

Omar Hernandez, the owner of Mexican Town Bakery and Armando’s Mexican Restaurant in southwest Detroit, said while there are positives in removing some restrictions, there is work to be done.

“I think what Obama did is a good thing and it is going to help businesses in the U.S. But I don’t know how much it will help the people of Cuba,” Hernandez said. “Cuban doctors, for example, get paid an average salary of $50 per month. That is part of the problem.”

Private employment also has grown to 11 percent of the island’s population, Hernandez warned.

“We have people in Cuba who work for private companies, but they are still getting paid low wages in Cuban currency,” Hernandez argued. “Before you used to pay $6 an hour to use the Internet in Cuba, now it will cost you $2 an hour. How can you afford an Internet service if you are getting paid $20 per month? Also, what kind of incentive is there to struggle and work hard if you are going to be paid below minimum wage?”

Carlos Carmona, a private jeweler whose clients include celebrities, said Cuba should have to make some changes before the Obama administration further lifts restrictions.

“We have to have a counterbalance and demand change from the Cuban government,” Carmona said. “The people in Cuba need to have unfettered access to the Internet. There should be free and fair elections. All of these should be negotiated because if it stays the way it is, it is going to be a disaster and the Cuban people will be very upset with us.”

Carmona said he is excited about the possibility of taking his wife and children to Cuba.

“I always thought about taking my family to my birthplace. Now I would love to take my wife and son and show them the country,” Carmona said. “I know my parents and elders would disagree with me because of what they’ve experienced in the past in Cuba, but that is how I feel as part of the younger generation.”

Pallares, the Latin American expert, said the new U.S.-Cuba policy remains a divided issue in America’s Cuban-American community, especially in southeast Michigan.

“It stands to reason that the older Cubans know the political and historical factors in depth, while the younger Cubans are typical of their generation and tend to be uninformed and idealistic without a grasp of what the previous generation had to go through,” Pallares said. “They are more seduced by the fantasies of vintage cars, romantic faraway places, rum and Havana cigars.”

All three Cuban-Americans say while they’ve closely followed Obama’s unprecedented visit, the only way forward for Cuba now is for the White House to put pressure and to engage in intense diplomatic negotiations with the government in Havana for some serious concessions that would allow the people of Cuba to economically thrive.


Bankole Thompson is host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.