The Wall around Cuba Should Come Down
President George W. Bush's recent decision to fortify the wall of
separation and distrust between the United States and Cuba is wrong. The
cynical ploy for right-wing Cuban votes signals a deep ignorance of how
things are actually going on that embattled island.
The new Bush measures, designed to distance Cuban family ties from the U.S.
to the island, penalize and in many cases prohibit visits to relatives,
while also limiting the financial help U.S. relatives can send to their
families. The restrictive new measures have infuriated many Cuban families,
who clearly see how such limits actually reinforce rather than diminish the
volition by the central government to regulate Cuban life. However, let's
be clear, these are not only restrictions on Cuban families, but on all
Intelligent commentators for years have urged a policy to engage Cuba with
U.S. visitors, and with U.S. trade and commerce. This idea, now endorsed by
Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and both houses of
Congress, calls for more open travel. It is the best possibility of winning
the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. Availability of trade and
commerce is the right of all peoples and no government, least of all a
supposedly free republic based on trade and capital such as the United
States, should so severely deny its own people's freedom.
American Indians have much history with Cuba. Indians from the Florida Keys
and up the peninsula exchanged trade with the Taino of Cuba long before the
Spanish first touched land. Even today, Cuban Indian descendants, both
Taino and Ciboney, in Florida and on the island, have established contact
and co-sponsored conferences and reunions among families and relatives.
Over a dozen American Indians from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Oklahoma
fought the Spanish in Cuba as "Rough Riders" under Teddy Roosevelt's
command in 1898. Several Lakota nurses went later and some are buried in
Cuba. Not a few American Indian sailors and soldiers stationed at the U.S.
base in Guantanamo over the past century have met local Yateras Indians
from the nearby Cuban mountains. More recently, from 1997 - 2003, those
same mountains have witnessed dozens of Native visitors of many nations who
have participated in substantial cultural encounters with Cuban elders,
herbalists and holders of Taino heritage.
Here is a bit of history: Around 40 years ago, from 1959 through the early
1960s, Miccosukee, Haudenosaunee and Creek chiefs, among other Natives,
traveled to Havana to meet Fidel Castro, then the young and charismatic
revolutionary leader who had electrified the American hemisphere with his
people's revolt against a bloody dictator. The Native leaders each had
their own intent and purpose. The visits, first of many to Cuba by American
Indians over 40 years, would become legendary. In Cuba, visiting Native
dignitaries have sometimes been shown the photographic record of those
early encounters. There is actually a photograph of Fidel Castro wearing an
eagle plume headdress - gift of an Oklahoma White Bird Creek leader, W.A.
Raifford, who also granted the Cuban leader an Indian name ("Spiheechie
Meeko" reportedly "Great War Chief").
Among the Miccosukee, it was Chief Buffalo Tiger, an early advocate of
American Indian nations' rights to international representation, who led
the controversial delegation. Chief Tiger's Florida tribe was then engaged
in the general battle against termination and the chief reasoned he must
take his case to the international arena - and precisely to the capital of
America's hemispheric nemesis, Cuba. Chief Tiger's bold challenge shook up
the Eisenhower administration and the U.S. soon asserted recognition of the
For the Haudenosaunee, a delegation led by Tuscarora activist Wallace "Mad
Bear" Anderson, with planning assistance by Mohawk chief Standing Arrow,
took to Cuba the message of the Great Law of Peace. Mad Bear was of the
generation of American Indians in the 1950s who led the initial "unity
caravans" among northern traditionalists, precursor to the Red Power
movement of the 1970s. An Iroquois nationalist of the highest order, Mad
Bear was one of the main subjects of Edmund Wilson's noted 1960 book,
"Apologies to the Iroquois." Mad Bear's main struggle then was against the
New York State Power Authority, then ramming a huge reservoir project that
flooded a large part of the Tuscarora reservation.
The Tuscarora leader interpreted an ancient prophecy of warring Red and
White snakes as signal to use the Cold War rivalry between U.S. and the
Soviet Union to the advantage of the Native peoples of the world. Together
with Buffalo Tiger and other Indian leaders, Mad Bear sent a "buckskin of
recognition" to President Fidel Castro, who promptly invited the Native
leaders to Havana. When Castro wondered what Cuba might do for the Native
delegation, Mad Bear and the other leaders requested that Cuba - when the
time came - sponsor the entrance of Native nations into the United Nations.
(Castro kept his word and in 1977, when the American Indian nations landed
in Geneva and requested conferences and recognition, Cuba was one of the
four country sponsors at the initiation of that process.)
This bold move by Native leaders nearly 50 years ago, which ushered
hundreds of Native visits to Cuba over four decades, speaks to a freedom of
movement that we believe is implicit to the spread of understanding and
democracy. Today, as many northern Native nations establish tourism
enterprises, the freedom to invest in Cuba is on the minds of at least a
few Native leaders.
Nor has the history of revolutionary Cuba with American Indian leaders
always been friendly. During the Central American wars of the 1980s, Cuba
stood often accused of misunderstanding true Indian aspirations by tending
to apply Marxist frameworks to Indian socio-cultural and economic
realities. This has been an often painful but mostly available dialogue.
The most serious and divisive Latin American Indian issue was the war
between Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan Sandinista government and army
supported by Cuba. Critique and sympathies on this war split the indigenous
international movement for over a decade. During this geopolitical struggle
some failed to comprehend that Indians wanted neither the left nor the
right, preferring the Indian center.
These days, Cuban doctors are working in remote poor communities throughout
the hemisphere. For all its own economic problems, Cuba remains involved in
training doctors and other professionals for American Indian, poor and
disenfranchised communities in Central and South America. These days, many
countries in the world and significantly Canada, Spain, Great Britain,
France and Italy have major and growing business investments in Cuba. U.S.
business community leaders are appalled to be left out of such lucrative
markets in the largest island in the Caribbean, and one likely to attract
the bulk of the region's tourism trade over the next decade.
Many clamor for reform in Cuba's internal economic and political system,
but the important thing is that any changes must come from the inside, a
process that would be greatly expedited by open access and travel among
Americans and Cubans and through an increase in U.S. dollars shared within
Cuban families. A prosperous future is possible if the parties are able to
meet and reason together. He who destroys that possibility unnecessarily
inflicts pain on Cuban families and makes conflict inevitable. We reject
that negative and mean-spirited approach. It is inconsistent with the good
mind value of most every American Indian culture and religion. Cuba has
many problems but a new, well-educated generation is coming along that can
address them. Peaceful cooperation with substantial economic openness can
achieve this positive potential in ways that Cold War hostility cannot and
has failed to do so, at huge cost to the Cuban people, for nearly 50 years.
Want to promote more open government in Cuba? Want to dissipate the
barriers to various levels of free enterprise? Want to encourage Cuban
political discourse so jail is not the result of an open critical approach?
Then, engage the Cuban people and their current institutions. Pursue trade,
dialogue and travel. Respect the dignity and recognize the needs of the
Cuban family. Allow the power of ideas to permeate and uplift Cuban
For American Indian governments, exercising the right to meet, relate to
and establish trade relations with other peoples is what we endorse. The
fervent belief by those chiefs and leaders of half a century ago to travel
and see Cuba for themselves, which ought to be the right of every American
citizen, presaged the international cry for justice Native peoples would
raise some two decades later.
There is a wall around Cuba that only the United States can tear down.
Building walls of imposed separation between families and peoples is always
the wrong approach to peace in the world. Walls, whether physical,
conceptual or ideological, are indications that peace is not desirable,
only conflict. In the case of Cuba we submit it is a wall of ignorance. To
President Bush, we say: "Tear down this wall!"