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Gonzalez: Respect for sovereignty is best Cuba policy

It was quite refreshing to receive the Indian Country Today and read U.S. Senator Max Baucus' fine column on the American government's policy of embargo and travel prohibition against Cuba. I am impressed that the national Native newspaper is engaged in such well-rounded reporting of hemispheric issues. I share Congressman Baucus's opinion that 40 years of harsh and ineffective embargo by the United States against Cuba has only strengthened the hand of the hard-liners within Fidel Castro's government. This must be the assessment of any truly impartial observer of whatever political persuasion.

Like everyone else in the United States, American Indians are severely hampered by the U.S. embargo. Senator Baucus writes of the many products of Montana agriculture, including wheat, barley, cattle, and dry beans, that Cuba is even now willing to purchase. Not a few American Indian ranchers and farmers in Montana and other mid-western states are similarly constrained by American rules against commercial and cultural trade with Cuba. This is also true of the American resort and entertainment industry, which includes scores of tribes, and who are missing out on astounding prospects for tourism on the largest (by far) of the Caribbean islands. It is also true that Cuban people generally sustain many indigenous traditions. The people of the eastern mountains in Cuba, where our indigenous legacy is strongest, have certainly been of great interest to North American Indian delegations, who have had great encounters in their region. The prohibition of such cultural encounters is, I believe, is a sad curtailment of American Indian freedom to travel.

It is easy to understand why U.S. policy makers have felt great hostility toward Castro's government. He has challenged U.S. interests in every country of the Western Hemisphere, in Africa and at international forums the world over. Fidel Castro has been more than a thorn on the side of a United States seeking to set its preferred structure of trade and development on a global scale. However the American policy of embargo and isolation has failed so miserably that it is hard to understand why it continues to be pursued. In fact, many would assert that the embargo has achieved exactly the opposite of its aims that it has helped to maintain Castro in power.

Vastly more powerful than Cuba, the U.S. could project the best in its system to the Cuban people, if only it would not fall into such outdated thinking as "embargoes" and unfounded accusations of terrorism or trading in sex. How refreshing it would be if the U.S. would instead propose to engage Cuba diplomatically, economically and politically! After all, what are we afraid of? Do we fear that Fidel's system will influence Americans toward Cuban-style socialism? I do not think President Bush fears any such thing. That is why from the bottom of my Cuban-American heart, I urge him to heed the will of Congress, and the wishes of the majority of both Cubans and Americans, and consider the message of the recently-scuttled amendment to withhold funding for the ban on travel to Cuba that was riding the Transportation and Treasury Appropriations Bill.

In a historic and wise vote, the U.S. Senate had approved by a 59-38 margin an amendment to the $90 billion Appropriations Bill which would effectively prevent the Treasury Department from enforcing travel restrictions imposed on Americans wishing to visit Cuba. Later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved by a 13 to 5 majority sending the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act to the full Senate.

Unfortunately, the administration refused to consider the will of Congress and continues to say that tightening the already discredited embargo will "hasten democracy" in the island. Well, let me suggest to them that such a view is held only by a dwindling minority of the Cuban American community and its allies among American conservatives. Actually, the trend among Cuban Americans is to seek full engagement with our counterparts on the island: to be able to visit, compare political systems, influence each other and engage in comprehensive discussions as individuals, families and communities in order to chart a new "road map" for the next generation. Extended family and place of origin are hugely important to all Cuban people. This sentiment is part of our own indigenous inheritance. And it is reflected beyond our families to our intense love of our nation and its ever-vigilant struggle for its independence.

What those who support confrontation fail to understand is the nature of the conflict between Cuba and the U.S. They are baffled by the ability of the Cuban government to survive since the collapse of the Soviet Union and in spite of U.S. efforts to bring it down. Their frustration fuels the same old habits. I can answer their bewilderment in one word: sovereignty. Respect for the love of nation is imbedded in the Cuban identity. "Morir por la Patria es vivir." (To die for the homeland is to live.) It is a deep-seated sentiment and the more the U.S. policy tries to force its will on the Cubans, the more it ignites their nationalist spirit. American policy makers must come to terms with this reality if we truly want a long-lasting solution to the Cuban question.

The current administration might well consider a Cuban version of President Nixon's d?tente policy and recognize that engagement is the way to bring about changes in Cuba. And the Cuban-American community needs to reflect on the perils of confrontation, with its potential for war, military intervention and hatred and hostility without end. The alternative is a peaceful transition to democracy and national reconciliation. Full frontal economic, political and cultural engagement, based on simple respect for Cuba's sovereignty, is the first step in that long process. Of all peoples in North America, I have a feeling Native Americans might be the ones who can most truly understand what I mean.

Ricardo Gonzalez, a Madison, Wis. businessman and former City Council member, is president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy. The CCD is a national organization of Cubans for a comprehensive U.S.-Cuba engagement policy resulting in a transition to democracy.