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Cuba's relations with the U.S. could ignite progress

It’s a natural inclination for one to want to be with their family in their home country when a parent passes away. 

Victor Santos, a UNM student who in 2009 came to the U.S. from Cuba with his family as political refugees, wasn’t afforded that opportunity when his father died earlier this year. The arduous process of getting a Cuban passport prevented him from doing so, as well as the cost – it’s about five times higher than getting a U.S. passport.

“If something happens to your family in Cuba and your passport is not ready, you still can’t go to Cuba,” Santos said. “It’s really sad.”

Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have been decidedly rocky for more than half a century, ever since an embargo on U.S. products and services to Cuba was installed in 1960.

Remnants of tension and hesitancy from the Cold War have existed ever since, as a catalyst for lack of discussion between the two nations.

Last week President Barack Obama became the first sitting commander-in-chief in 80 years to visit the nation, the latest in a series of moves during his time in office to try and recuperate U.S.-Cuban relations.

UNM Sociology Professor Nelson Valdes said while that visit was viewed by many, at least on a symbolic level, as a sign that serious discussions could finally be had, the history of relations between the two countries has not been as linear as most would like to think.

“Republicans have not been as unfriendly to Cuba as it is often assumed,” Valdes said. “One has to look at the history of the relationship in order to explore the facts.”

He said Obama had the opportunity during his first term to lift the economic embargo that has been in place against Cuba since 1960 when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate, but has since lost his chance.

“So how much can a president do between now and January 20 of next year? Not much,” Valdes said.

A key for change in Cuba

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Among the things that Santos said he would like to see change for his home country, access to Internet might be the most important.

According to Cuban government sources, only five percent of Cubans have internet, robbing the nation’s inhabitants of a valuable commodity.

“Having access to the Internet means having access to information, and that would open a real democracy,” Santos said. “People need to be able to express what they feel and people need to have the right to choose their own president and their own government.”

A minority within a land of minorities

Santos’ arrived in the U.S. when he was 19 years old. His mother was the first to arrive, but Santos first had to serve one year in the Cuban military, which is standard protocol.

Santos said because he is light-skinned, many people would assume he was American, only to be surprised when he told them where he was from.

“They make this really long face, just because you have an accent and you were not born here,” he said. “But if I live on the American continent, I’m an American, too. I just have an accent when I speak.”

Santos said that stigma could make it hard for Cubans to find jobs stateside, but it’s a different case in some of the larger U.S. metropolises.

“When I go to big cities like New York or San Francisco, I don’t feel like anyone is discriminating (against me), because there is a huge diversity,” he said.

But when it comes to New Mexico as a state that prides itself on diversity, Santos said it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Contrary to places like New York or San Francisco, Santos said he still feels isolated in Albuquerque at times. Even at an oasis of minorities, he said it’s still difficult for him and other Cubans, the demographical equivalent of a nesting doll’s innermost compartments.

“My family has a Cuban food restaurant, it’s the only one in the city,” Santos said.

Still, the number of Cubans entering the U.S. is on the rise. According to 2015 NPR report, more Cubans entered the U.S. last year than in any year over the last two decades – 43,000, compared to a little over 24,000 from the year before, the report states.  

 “A lot of us come here because we want a better life,” he said.

According to Fox News, the average income in Cuba is about $20 a month, a number that has been rising ever so slightly in recent years.

“In Cuba you would never be able to buy a car or buy your own house. People live with their parents until they die,” Santos said.

A potentially mutually beneficial partnership

The embargo placed on Cuba is essentially a total blockade of the economic, financial, technological and commercial variety, Valdes said. If a product is made in the U.S., Cubans don’t receive it. If the country wants to cash in on dollars made from tourism, no can do.

“It will be illegal for any bank in the world to engage in such a transaction,” he said.

Valdes said lifting the blockade of good and services between the two countries would be mutually beneficial. For example, Americans could take advantage of cheaper, quality health care in Cuba while the island nation can finally engage in commerce with the U.S.

The effects could be felt locally, as well.

“New Mexico could benefit in many ways: selling agricultural products to the island, including paper and beef,” Valdes said. “Cuba could provide the technical resources and training to deal with the high illiteracy rate in New Mexico. The programs in education (in Cuba) are recognized worldwide."

Valdes said it is hard for the U.S. government to grasp that such a small island nation – one that is closer to the Florida Keys than Los Alamos is to Albuquerque – remains independent.

Although U.S. policy in Cuba is an interventionist one, Valdes said he dreams of a day when the two governments can peacefully deliberate and work together for public interest.

“When there is willingness on both sides, solutions can be found,” Valdes said. “But the relations have to be between equals, otherwise this will go on for sixty more years.”

David Lynch is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at managingeditor@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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