By Larissa Karr, Arts and Features Editor
“I’m not saying break the law, but break the law,” Jon Elliston said as he offered his opinion as to whether or not Americans should visit Cuba.
Elliston presented the first of several lectures, “Reconnecting with Cuba,” in UNC Asheville’s World Affairs Council series held this fall. Elliston, an investigative journalist and historian with Carolina Public Press, said he has visited the island nation more than 20 times and is fascinated with the country.
“I initially got interested in Cuba when I was working at the Cuba desk for a research group in Washington called the National Security Archive, a nonprofit that collects declassified documents,” Elliston said. “We were getting a lot of materials declassified about particular events in the 1960s between the United States and Cuba and I started studying it in college and in grad school and started making trips in the ‘90s.”
America’s normalization of relations with Cuba came on December 17, 2014, a day cited as being as significant to Cubans as the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1951, and the 26th of July Movement, when Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1959.
“If you had told me a year ago that this would have happened, I would never have believed it,” Elliston said.
He said the reason for his disbelief was there were no positive developments nor a relationship between the United States and Cuba for more than 50 years.
According to Elliston, Cuba is a country that people lie about all the time.
The embargo on Cuba implemented in 1962 cost the country an estimated $116 billion in economic losses, Elliston said. This, in addition to the United States blowing up Cuban airliners, killing civilians and burning sugar cane fields in the 1960s makes the Cuban case for reparations strong.
President Obama made the decision to remove Cuba from the United States’ list of countries that support terrorism. As such, this is a major political development working on ameliorating the stigma Cuba has gained as a hotbed for violent, anti-American radicals since the ‘60s.
Cuba has served as a place of refuge for many people who are considered dangerous and “terrorists” by the U.S., including Black Panther activist Assata Shakur, Puerto Rican rebels and bank robbers. One of the first actions Obama condoned was a prisoner swap, in which two American citizens held by Cuba were swapped for three of five Cuban intelligence agents accused of espionage against the U.S. in 1998.
Obama also relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, making it easier for Americans to go there and do business. So far, U.S. travel to Cuba is up 50 percent this year and shows no signs of slowing down. The benefits for both countries, including educational exchanges and free trade, would open up a huge new market for agriculture both in Cuba and in the southern U.S.
“I had several friends who travelled to Cuba from time to time when I lived in Tennessee. I’ve heard different stories depending on why they were there and when they were there, but I love what I’m hearing. It sounds so positive,” said Jeanie Hale, an event attendee.
There are, however, several more barriers hindering Cuban-American relations from even being close to normal, Ellison said, chiefly, the embargo. Internationalized because of the Helms-Burton Act passed in 1996, former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms and former Indiana representative Dan Burton called for a strengthening of the embargo against Cuba.
This act was spurred because Cubans were accused of shooting down two planes by a group formed of Cuban exiles opposed to the Castro regime. It remains disputed to this day whether or not the planes were shot down over Cuban territory or international airspace.
One of the greatest restrictive aspects of the embargo that still remains is that any non-U.S. company dealing economically with Cuba will be evaluated and could be barred from entry into the U.S. Other countries are also not allowed to dock boats for six months in an American harbor if they visit Cuba before the U.S.
Opening of U.S.-Cuban relations is the turning of a chapter in a new era of both governments, and with the re-opening of the American embassy in Havana, it seems the ice could slowly be thawing.
“Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before many of us were born,” stated President Obama in a globally-televised address Dec. 17 of last year.
The reasons for beginning and facilitating an amicable relationship with Cuba are numerous and multi-faceted.
“Cuba, after all, is just 90 miles away. Not only do we share proximity but we share a lot of culture, we share a lot of family members and people who have family on both sides of the divide,” Elliston said. “We share a lot of common concerns, everything from hurricanes to migration to countering narcotics efforts in the Caribbean to environmental efforts to really positive cultural and academic collaborations.”
Cuba, Elliston stated in his talk, has one of the highest literacy rates in the world as a result of having a free education system. They are also, he said, adept at producing highly advanced medicines, just not at marketing and selling them.
In a country so close to one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, the average citizen makes around the U.S. equivalent of $25 per month, with even “upper-class” individuals like doctors making the equivalent of $35 a month.
“Taxi jobs are better-paying,” Elliston said.
In the United States, the quality of life for many Cubans is not much better.
“ I was in New Orleans in the ‘60s and I was shocked when you would have doctors running elevators because they could not practice here,” said Eugenie Goff, a retired social worker.
In light of the recent trip to John Kerry’s trip last month to the newly reopened American embassy in Havana, positive relations between the United States and Cuba are increasingly expected and encouraged by the international community.
“It’s created a lot of pressure, created suspicion and mistrust from allies in this hemisphere because we were this whole nation that was hostile towards Cuba,” Elliston said. “Now that we’ve shown we can talk to even our long-time enemies and conduct diplomacy with them, that’s a signal to the rest of the hemisphere that the United States might be a better partner.”
However, he does remain slightly skeptical.
“Don’t go to Cuba expecting to see McDonald’s anytime soon.”