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Bring Cuba and Our Relations into the Present

June 23, 2015
Op-Ed and Letters

Originially published in the Hartford Courant on June 14, 2015


It's time to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.

I recently visited the island with a congressional delegation. Cuba is steeped in tradition but stifled by its government and the U.S. embargo. Modernity and technology have largely passed it by. The Internet exists in small pockets. Cellphones are accessible only for a select few, and then at limited speeds and connectivity.

The perseverance of the Cuban people, however, is remarkable. Cuba is one of the most literate countries in the world, renowned for its teachers and doctors. Their thirst for entrepreneurial freedom — strikingly similar to the evolution of China and Vietnam (both nations with whom we trade) — is evident. President Barack Obama is right to pursue normalization of relations.

Cubans in the United States are conflicted. They yearn for the freedom that trade and prosperity can bring to their native land while remembering how they toiled and suffered under brutal conditions, and risked their lives to find safety, security and new opportunities in America. Families splintered, and many who still remain on the island have loved ones in Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey and elsewhere. Those who remain struggle to eke out a living.

There can be no downplaying or ignoring the responsibility of the Cuban government's role in the plight of its people.

To echo the sentiments of my colleague, Rep. Albio Sires, D- N.J., too many men, women and children lost their lives. Too many more suffer in silence for fear of retaliation and suppression. Some risk their lives on a dangerous exodus to Florida. Others rely on black markets to provide for them what their country cannot. All deserve a chance for prosperity and a life free of oppression and fear.

That is why we must resume diplomatic dialogue and pursue steps to reconnect Cubans with the modern world. The rest will follow. Decades-long constraints limited the prosperity of the regime, but also had a devastating effect on basic livelihood of its people. Cuba has tremendous potential. This was underscored at their 2015 biennial: a convergence of art and science.

Cuba has perhaps no greater champion than Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, whose unassuming manner and quiet demeanor belie the pivotal role he played in the election of Pope Francis and the pope's eventual meeting with President Barack Obama about Cuba's potential.

Rep. Larson shakes hands with Cardinal Ortega

As only the second Cuban cardinal in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Ortega has seen firsthand how the Cuban people have suffered. A normalization of relations between our two countries does not mean we simply forget Cuba's often problematic record on human rights. But we also cannot address those problems by ignoring Cuba or the plight of its people, who otherwise will continue to struggle for generations.

Opening trade will provide Cubans with better access to the Internet and other technology, foreign aid and the global community. It will allow Cubans to take ownership over their lives and their government, and it will completely re-energize Latin America. A bilateral agreement between our countries could redefine the attitude of the Southern Hemisphere.

We're making significant strides toward that goal. On May 29 — what would have been the late President John F. Kennedy's 98th birthday — the United States officially removed Cuba from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism. It is perhaps ironic that those two dates should coincide. Yet more significant is how old Kennedy would be now. It is difficult to imagine him as 98. Like Cuba, he is frozen in time. Likewise, it is hard to imagine that Fidel Castro will turn 89 this summer. We think of Kennedy, Castro and Cuba in terms of the roles they played in the past, yet whole generations have grown up in the intervening years.

As Cardinal Ortega said, it's time to turn the page.