By Dr. Larry Cebula
Associate Professor of History
After more than 40 years residing in the shadow of the Soviet Union and isolated by an economic embargo, Cuba stands poised on the brink of radical change. In the next decade inevitable changes in the Cuban government and relationship to the United States will transform Cuba from an impoverished communist holdout to one of the United States' most important Latin American allies and trading partners. By making the fall of 2003 the Cuba Semester, Missouri Southern State University hopes to highlight the coming importance of Cuba and to lay a groundwork of knowledge and connections that will prepare our institution, state and region to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.
After 44 years under communist rule, Cuba today is on the brink of radical change. Fidel Castro, whose forces swept into Havana in January 1959, is 76 years old and in failing health. His brother and officially designated successor, Raul, is also in his 70s. As the Castro brothers age, the forces of change are gathering strength on the island. The Cuban economy has been in a crisis since 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost what had been a $5 billion a year subsidy. Small-scale private businesses were legalized in 1993 and have created a new social class of economic entrepreneurs. Some of the government penalties against practicing Catholics have been lifted, and the church has been reinvigorated by two visits from the pope in recent years. A free enterprise black market operates quite openly alongside the official socialist economy. And in 2002 the Varela Project, a dissident group operating within Cuba, gathered more than 11,000 signatures on a petition calling for radical changes, including the rights of free speech, free enterprise and new elections. A new regime in Cuba would produce a new relationship with the United States.
U.S. policy toward Cuba is softening as well. The embargo on United States companies trading with Cuba, first imposed in 1962, is weakening. Sales of food and medicine were allowed in 2000, and the first food shipment included corn from Missouri. More Americans are traveling to Cuba as well. The U.S. Treasury Department officially prohibits American visitors from spending money in Cuba, but numerous exemptions exist for journalists, academicians, athletes, and individuals visiting family in Cuba. Even more Americans visit Cuba illegally each year, simply by changing planes in Canada or Mexico. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to end the travel ban in 2000, 2001, and 2002, but there has been no action from the Senate. As many as 120,000 Americans visited Cuba last year, legally and illegally.
Cuba has the potential to be one of the United States' most important Latin American trading partners. Located just 100 miles from Florida, Cuba is an island of more than 11 million people, one-quarter of them less than 16 years old. A post-Castro, post-embargo Cuba will be a major market for American agricultural exports, especially such Missouri specialties as pork, beef, wheat and corn. In fact, Fernando Remirez, Cuba's official representative to the United States, has already twice visited Missouri's farms. Cuban sugar and tobacco will find a ready market in North America. Cuba's close location, warm climate and fertile soil will make it an ideal place to grow winter produce for U.S markets.
Post-Castro Cuba also promises to be a major American tourist destination. Cuba boasts a sunny climate and hundreds of tropical beaches, all just a 45-minute flight from Miami. Cuba jazz, baseball, and ecotourism will also make it an attractive vacation spot. Havana was the most popular Caribbean destination before 1959, and its tourist infrastructure has been rebuilt in the last decade with the help of European investors.
Cuba also promises to become a major cultural and education destination. Havana was Spain's most important port in the New World for almost 400 years, and even today boasts the world's most impressive collection of Spanish colonial architecture. Cuba has a unique indigenous religion based on African beliefs, Santeria, that operates alongside the Catholic Church. An extensive set of national parks protects a unique set of ecological resources. And Cuba's nearly perfect literacy rate and extensive higher education system invite educational partnerships.
Missouri Southern has already begun building bridges to Cuba. Baseball coach Warren Turner twice has coached Team USA at the World Junior Baseball Championships in Havana. In 2001, Missouri Southern was granted an institution license for travel to Cuba by the U.S. Treasury Department. In March 2002, professors David Locher and Larry Cebula of the Social Science Department brought 14 students to Cuba on a week-long research trip. And in late December 2002, Locher and Cebula returned to Cuba with the first-ever Missouri Southern Alumni Association trip abroad. This summer, a select group of Southern professors will travel to Cuba to take part in a two-week Council on International Educational Exchange study tour.