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My Case Against Cuba Sanctions

January 25, 2017

Cuba’s amateur boxing program is legendary. With a population smaller than Ohio’s, Cuba since 1960 has won 73 men’s Olympic boxing medals to 61 for the United States, which ranks second over that time. The only three-time gold medalists in Olympic boxing history are Cuban – the great heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon. Since the Cuban Revolution, Cuba has won Olympic gold 37 times – compared to 27 for the United States, which is surely one of the world’s most pugilistic countries.

In Havana for vacation last week, in between restored colonial era churches in Old Havana, my spouse and I came across a boxing gym. I remembered reading that tourists were welcome to stop in at these gyms, so we did. Sure enough, off in one corner was a tour guide lecturing his charges.

But my spouse and I didn’t want the tourist experience. We found someone who looked like he worked there and we struck up a conversation. My spouse asked who was the gym’s most famous boxer. Instead of answering, our new friend called one of the boxers over, and next thing I know we’re deep in conversation with an aspiring member of the Cuban team for the 2019 Pan American games in Lima.

After awhile, my spouse, Guillermo, who is one of the larger-hearted members of the human species, told the boxer – rather peremptorily, I thought – to come with him. Guillermo stepped into a side room, out of view of the gym employees and other boxers, and gave the boxer a Cuban currency note worth ten dollars.

I knew Guillermo meant well, but I was certain the boxer would refuse. Surely, I thought, the Cuban government sees to the needs of its top amateur boxers. Surely a Cuban boxer who competes internationally does not need ten bucks from a tourist. I thought he would be insulted.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Tears came to the boxer’s eyes. He choked up and thanked Guillermo profusely, his right hand over his heart in a classic Cuban gesture of gratitude. He poured out a torrent of words, of which I understood only “mi casa es tu casa” – a phrase meant much more literally in Latin America than in the United States.

We were told that a good tradesman in Cuba, like a plumber or an electrician, makes about $10 a month. Education and health care are universal and free, and many essential goods and services are subsidized. Still, a cheap pair of shoes costs several weeks’ wages. A date night of dinner out and a couple of beers costs a month’s pay. Cars are family heirlooms, those iconic 1950s Ford Fairlanes and Chevy BelAirs passed down now three generations, and a gallon of gas costs almost two weeks’ salary.

Since 2011, Raul Castro has allowed closely regulated private businesses. So rather than stay in a state-run resort hotel for a couple hundred dollars a night, we stayed for $40 a night in a privately owned place – a partly restored building in Old Havana that serves as a sort of a combination bed-and-breakfast, theater, dance class studio, and tour group staging area.

That bed-and-breakfast sustains eight jobs, six full-time and two part-time, not counting the construction jobs that go into the continuing restoration of the building. Although our tipping was extravagant, measured by Cuban tipping customs, in fact it was just a few dollars here and there. The couple who run the bed-and-breakfast we stayed in told us that the tip we left them would fix their plumbing at home.

Guillermo and I are accustomed to the outsized welcome that American tourists enjoy around the world, even in countries where our government is regarded with suspicion or hostility. Even so, our welcome in Cuba stood out. American tourists not traveling in packs, as part of cruise ship excursions or educational and cultural tour groups, are still rare.

It wasn’t just our tourist dollars that were valued. Ordinary Cubans were eager to engage us in conversation. They were surprisingly free with their opinions, including political opinions. Many described their own government with sardonic, eye-rolling cynicism. Opinions of Donald Trump were unanimously strong and negative, although the reasoning varied – some think he is crazy, some think he is corrupt and power-hungry, some think he is stupid. We talked to no one who thinks Trump’s presidency will be good for Cubans.

Two years ago, after Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, I responded to conservative criticism with the assertion that advocacy of democracy and opposition to dictatorship in Cuba requires respect for the opinions of the Cuban people – and Cubans were thrilled by Obama’s move. Similarly now, Cubans are thrilled that Americans are now able to travel to Cuba more freely. If we don’t truly believe that Cubans know what is in their own best interests, then why after all do we advocate democratic self-government in Cuba?

It has always bothered me that some of the most fervent proponents of the American economic sanctions against Cuba were Cuban-Americans who, pursuant to exemptions written right into the sanctions provisions, are entitled to send money to their families in Cuba, and to visit Cuba freely. The argument for sanctions has been that American trade with Cuba would only help the regime; trade will only keep Raul Castro in power. It has never been clear to me why my tourist dollar benefits Castro while a Cuban-American’s remittance dollar or travel dollar does not.

Al contrario, queridos amigos. My tourist dollar sustains jobs, buys shoes, renovates buildings and repairs plumbing. My tourist dollar brings tears to a world-class boxer’s eyes. My tourist dollar improves Cuban lives.

American economic sanctions against Cuba must end.


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