Cuba then and now

A few weeks ago, I was invited to travel to Cuba with a Congressional delegation led by East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee. The invitation came from the Congressional Black Caucus. The departure date was to have been April 3rd, so a quick reply was necessary. There were strong indicators that once again, the now nearly fifty-year-old embargo against trade and investment in Cuba was about to change.Of course I was interested in attending, but today's media outlets are cautious about sponsoring anything outside of their immediate coverage area, so there were no local takers, despite the potential importance of the story.In the eyes of many Americans, Cuba remains mysterious and enchanting, despite the conditions brought on by its decades-long isolation. In discussions of this 2009 delegation, there was the same air of expectation as there had been when I had made the same journey, twice before. On each occasion, it had seemed as though the US and Cuba were finally on the road to normalizing relations.Back in 1963, President John F. Kennedy first imposed the embargo ("Cuban Assets Control Regulations") during the Cold War, after the island nation's President, Fidel Castro, allowed the Russian government to place missiles on the island, which is located just 90 miles from the coast of Florida.The first real thaw in relations didn't come until 1977, soon after President Jimmy Carter set in motion a process he believed would lead to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was an effort that was eventually aborted, due to Cold War issues like Cuba's involvement in African political affairs.During that euphoric period, when cruise ships loaded with American tourists docked at Havana's harbor, our television crew from San Francisco was there to record it. Our main assignment was to accompany Former Congressman Ron Dellums and a delegation of business, educational and medical leaders, as they assessed opportunities for working with Cuba. At the top of their list were direct talks with the country's unpredictable and charismatic leader, President Fidel Castro.On that trip in 1977, we accomplished everything we set out to do and more, securing a long interview with President Castro. This was a journalistic effort that later earned our team two Northern California Emmys.It was more than twenty years before we returned again, to capture the realities of Cuba in 1998. This time we joined the woman who took Ron Dellums' place in Congress after he retired, Representative Barbara Lee, and her delegation. The island had changed and signs of economic hardship were showing, but the tourist business was thriving with visitors from all over the world, providing crucial funds to fuel the government. Only Fidel Castro and the spirit of the Cuban people seemed unchanged at that time.A lot has changed in the past ten years. As fate would have it, Representative Lee, now Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with two other Members of Congress, were the first American leaders to meet with the enigmatic Fidel Castro since he dropped from public sight following serious surgery over a year ago. The delegation of seven Members of Congress was also the first group of American leaders to speak directly with new Cuban President Raul Castro since he took office in 2008.Front-page news of the meetings with the Castro's brother was quickly followed by a decision from the Obama Administration to dramatically loosen the US embargo.Within a few weeks, the families of Cuban citizens will now be able to visit their relatives as often as they choose, and to send them as much money as they can afford, in an effort to ease poverty on the island. (Right now those visits are restricted to once every three years and remittances are capped at $100.) News of the loosened restrictions was heralded, even in Florida, the center of anti-Castro resistance.So why is this big news for the Bay Area? Because two of the most prominent leaders in the movement to change the isolation of Cuba from America are centered in the East Bay: Rep. Barbara Lee and Mayor Ronald Dellums. Both claim that their interests are centered in concerns for equality and justice. In interviews, they have questioned why the US can do business with both Russia and China, but not Cuba. However, their political positions have been complicated by the unequal treatment of blacks in Cuba, and by the fact that Cuba often imprisons those who disagree with the government.There were a number of news stories to pursue in this 2009 trip and many personal reasons I wish I had been there, not just for the news, but to see if Havana University still has its flounce; to see if the Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez Centers are still operating; to see if the old "Junker" cars are still charming and find out if the children are still happy and healthy; to see the families who come to visit their relatives in the AIDS hospital every day and bring them food; to see if Chinatown in Havana is still surviving; to taste those delicious forbidden Cuban lobsters cooked by excellent Chinese chefs; to feel the music and attempt the latest dance moves; to watch the water beat against the high wall that protects Old Havana and, most of all, to stroll the streets and hear the music coming from everywhere in Santiago de Cuba; to sadly survey the damage left by two major hurricanes that have struck the island over the past few years and to watch the people do all they can without needed materials to repair the damage.It would have been a pleasure to witness this new page in the Island's history and to find out if Fidel Castro still believes what he once told me, which is that Cuba, will one day produce some of the world's best wines, certainly better than any California could produce, when political conditions change.Well, once again, it seems as though the climate is right. Maybe it's the Cuban people's turn for conditions to change. Let's wish the political leaders well on this new journey toward the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba.