Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

December 17, 2013

Lion and the Lamb: Obama's handshake

By Ted Braun
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — When President Obama approached the podium to give the opening eulogy at the Mandela memorial celebration in South Africa on December 10, he shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro and other national leaders near the podium. It was the first time the two leaders had met.

Conservative critics in the U.S. were upset that Obama had done this, even though it was a mark of civility and a gesture that fit in well with the irenic spirit of Mandela. Because our nation had been at war with Cuba through an economic blockade for many decades, they felt this was't the way to deal with national enemies.

The main problem for them was the way Cuba had developed over the years from the time it was a Spanish colony and then an independent nation under the control of U.S. corporations. But then along the way came such leaders as Jose Marti and Fidel Castro with national ideas similar to those of Mandela: that Cuba belongs to all those who live in it, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.

In 1959 when Fidel Castro became president, the nation passed its first Agrarian Reform law, limiting the amount of land one could hold, expropriating the rest, and distributing it to 25,000 farm families. Cuba proposed compensation with government-issued bonds that paid an annual interest of 4.5 percent and were to be refunded in twenty years. All the other foreign countries with investments in Cuba—France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Canada, and Spain—accepted Cuba's plan, but the United States rejected it. Instead, it asked Cuba for "the payment of a prompt, adequate, and effective compensation."

The conflict between Cuba and the United States intensified from then on. The Cuban government nationalized all U.S.-owned properties, offering its standard 20-year compensation. This culminated in the U.S.'s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 that was defeated in 72 hours and in the beginning of an economic boycott of the island that is still in effect today.

This blockade, imposed by the U.S. for over 50 years, has been very costly for Cuba. The losses in its foreign trade between April 2012 and April 2013 have amounted to $3.9 billion. For the twenty-second time the U.N. General Assembly has condemned the blockade as a violation of international law and demanded an end to the economic, commercial, and financial blockade. In this last vote, 188 nations approved the resolution against the blockade. Only the U.S. and Israel voted no, while Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands abstained. 

There are a number of reasons why Cuba has been able to survive an invasion and blockade. One is the strong support of the Cuban people for its government and its development of a political, economic, and social framework that the population has found very beneficial. Following are some of these main reasons:

Neighborhood groups were set up to cover the entire country for local discussion of national issues, mutual support, health care attention (vaccination, exercise, etc.) a recycling program, and celebration of national holidays. Several neighborhoods together comprise a zone, the basic political and voting unit in the nation. Each zone votes on a candidate to serve in the National Assembly (no campaign money is allowed). Each delegate is expected to report back to his/her zone at regular intervals. Half of the National Assembly members are now women. All citizens have voting rights, and voting locations are numerous and easy to reach.

Universal health care is free, with an emphasis on preventive care. Each neighborhood has a medical clinic with a doctor and nurse on call 24 hours a day. These are backed up by polyclinics and specialty hospitals.

Education is free from elementary school through university. Even small elementary schools in the countryside have benefits such as solar power, computers, and even several teachers for as few as eight children .

Women receive the same salary for the same work as men. Day care centers are available in every locality for working mothers. There is a one-to-seven spread between the lowest salary and the highest.

Racial segregation was ended at the beginning of the new government. During recent years the National Assembly has declared Cuba to be a "green" country with an emphasis on environmental and ecological sustainability.

It's too bad that Obama didn't have an opportunity for further conversation with Raul Castro since he was with his older brother Fidel all through the struggle for a more inclusive and representative social, political, and economic structure for the Cuban society. Raul's family has also been an influential one. His wife, Vilma Espin (now deceased) was the founder and first head of the Federation of Cuban Women, a very influential organization. Their daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, is the director of Cuba's new National Center of Sexual Education that focuses especially on combating homophobia.

There would have been many interesting subjects besides the boycott for the two leaders to talk about and compare notes. Perhaps the handshake can still have a follow-up.