Cuba-Massachusetts relations — the journey continues
This weekend, JetBlue began a new direct flight between Boston Logan Airport and Havana’s José Martí Airport.
The new route brings with it new opportunities for increased collaboration and cooperation between the people of Massachusetts and Cuba — but it also serves as a reminder that relations between our two nations are still hamstrung by a decades-old embargo that has outlived its original purpose and impedes progress in both our homelands.
The majority of Americans — particularly Cuban-Americans — and Cubans, as well as nearly every other country in the world, believe the US embargo should end. Its continuation isolates the United States from the rest of the world and our partners throughout the hemisphere. Only Congress can change this, and we believe now is the time for bold, decisive action to end the embargo once and for all.
Bipartisan bills to facilitate more agricultural sales to Cuba, end US travel restrictions, and lift the embargo have been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The next Congress should move one or more of these bills forward. And we think the longstanding relationship between Massachusetts and Cuba can serve as a blueprint for our two countries to rediscover each other and learn from the mistakes of the past. Working together, the people of Massachusetts and Cuba can only benefit from continued engagement and partnership with one another.
Over a century ago, nearly 1,300 Cuban schoolteachers spent the summer studying at Harvard University, implementing what they learned to strengthen the Cuban public school system. A century later, in April 2000, Representatives Joe Moakley of Boston and Jim McGovern of Worcester brought leadership and faculty members from 21 universities and colleges across Massachusetts to Cuba, where they explored the possibility of academic exchange, research, and student study abroad programs.
The relationship between the people of Cuba and Massachusetts is deep and sincere. Education has always been a key element of our partnership, but research, commerce, and tourism have played their part as well.
Investors from Massachusetts were involved in the Cuban sugar industry. The Arnold Arboretum supported a botanical garden in Cienfuegos for many years. And for decades, travelers from Massachusetts vacationed in Cuba, and well-to-do Cubans studied and taught at Massachusetts universities.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the ban on trade and travel imposed in the early 1960s broke these ties. The Cold War embargo sought to isolate Cuba and damage its economy; but too often we fail to remember that the break severed longstanding ties and hurt Massachusetts too.
Slowly, those ties are being rebuilt. Cold War tensions faded — although the ban on travel and trade, though intermittently eased, has never been removed. Academic ties have begun to grow as US administrations let Cuban scholars come to Massachusetts universities, and US scholars visit Cuba. The easing of the ban on student exchanges allowed Massachusetts schools to rebuild study abroad programs, so that today over a dozen colleges, universities, and study-abroad programs in the Commonwealth send students to Cuba. Recently, Northeastern University launched a co-op program in Cuba. And the number of Cuban graduate students and professors at Massachusetts universities is slowly growing.
One specific initiative each of us has been deeply engaged in is the effort to conserve and restore the Cuban home of American author and icon Ernest Hemingway, called Finca Vigia. A group of American scholars, conservators, architects, building trades, and other experts worked with their Cuban counterparts — inside and outside government — to save this precious piece of shared history. The late Jenny Phillips, granddaughter of Hemingway’s editor Max Perkins, was instrumental in our effort. For over a decade, Cubans and Americans labored together, despite the embargo, to bring Hemingway’s home back to life before it was lost forever.
While the United States blockade continues to prohibit most trade with Cuba, Massachusetts businesses — including the state’s growing biotech, medical device, and medical research sectors — are looking to the future. Cuba is looking to expand trade and research with the United States and to open some areas to investment, and Massachusetts business leaders have visited Cuba to explore possibilities.
This doesn’t mean we won’t have our differences.
We know the Cuban and United States governments have different views on how to manage their economy, on what constitutes full democracy, on how to promote and respect human rights, and other issues. We believe that we can and should debate these differences, learn to understand each other better, and yes, be able to learn from one another.
The blockade makes no sense — it’s a remnant from the Cold War that needs to be discarded. It hurts the Cuban people and limits their potential to shape and participate in a more modern economy. It also limits US citizens from traveling and doing business where they choose.
We must continue working for better bilateral relations, with mutual goodwill and respect, for the benefit of our countries and peoples.
We hope this new JetBlue flight is one more step toward rebuilding relations and continuing the journey of discovery between Massachusetts and Cuba.
James P. McGovern is a US representative from Massachusetts. José Ramón Cabañas is Cuba’s ambassador to the United States.