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For Cuba, it’s deja vu all over again

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In December 2000, it was my distinct honor to assist in planning and leading the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to Cuba on its first agribusiness delegation to the Republic of Cuba since the victory of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Cuba was well on its way in seeking to emerge from the dark years of what was termed as Cuba’s “Special Period.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its generous aid to Cuba abruptly cut off, the Cuban people found themselves with no Russian wheat for making bread. It got much worse with each succeeding month.

In the fall of 1995, I became the first U.S. citizen to be approved by the Cuban Ministry of Education to teach U.S. history to third-year English majors at the University of Matanzas. By this time, the Special Period was beginning to wane, but the living conditions for the Cuban people and my students were still severe.

Grocery store shelves were virtually bare and pharmacies had few if any medications. My students came to class hungry! It was well known that neighbors’ pets were starting to disappear and were being eaten to supply some means of meat for families.

Compounding this nightmarish situation was the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which had been codified by the Helms-Burton legislation. This affected not only U.S. trade with Cuba but also internationalized trade restrictions with Cuba.

After decades of the embargo and the Helms-Burton legislation, the Cuban system still stands. The onslaught of U.S. policies of past presidential administrations to weaken and destroy the current government of Cuba have been a total failure.

During my many visits, I noticed a distinct change in Cuba during the second term of the Obama administration and especially his new policy of constructive engagement with Cuba.

Cuban authorities relaxed. Cubans could open privately owned small businesses. They could purchase their own homes, sell real estate and travel more freely outside of Cuba. Thousands of Cuban families purchased a license to open their homes to tourists and especially U.S. citizens now traveling to Cuba in greater numbers due to new and a relaxed U.S.-Cuba travel policy. Cuba was changing. It was beginning to take on the look of a Vietnam-style economy. The people of Cuba were beginning to see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

In the middle of this new hope and progress of a new day for the Cuban people steps the Trump presidency and his attack dog, John Bolton.

Several days ago in Miami, speaking to a group of Bay of Pigs survivors, Bolton announced, to a cheering choir, that the Trump administration was preparing to invoke the Title III provision of the Helms-Burton legislation and to invoke new restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba.

This means in the simplest of terms that Cuban exiles in Miami or New Jersey can now sue the Cuban government for the properties they had seized following the Cuban Revolution. This particular provision of the Helms-Burton legislation has never been implemented by any other presidential administration due to the uncertainty of its legality and the massive confusion it can bring to our international allies who have extensive business holdings in Cuba.

Once again, the president of Cuba is calling on the Cuban people to tighten their collective belts and prepare for some very difficult days ahead. Already, my friends in Cuba are telling me of new shortages of daily food staples such as chicken and cooking oil.

How sad that a new generation of Cuban youth, who were not even alive during Cuba’s Special Period, may now experience their own “Special Period” of hunger and a lack of medications creating a new generation of Cubans who despise the U.S. government.

As my Baptist preacher dad used to say, “You can sit on a dead horse and whip it all day, but it is not going to get up and run.” The Trump U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba is a dead horse. Bury it.

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.

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