Vermonters pursue opportunities in Cuba, embargo be damned
In 2008, when 14 Vermont Little Leaguers traveled to Cuba, a few of them asked one of their chaperones why they kept spotting images of Bob Marley on Havana billboards and buildings. It was actually Che Guevara’s face they were seeing, says that chaperone, Thetford writer Ted Levin.
“We really need to promote some understanding,” says Levin, who notes that it took him four tries and two years before the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) gave the Upper Valley all-star squad permission to play a series of games with two Havana-area teams.
Confusion between a Cuban revolutionary hero and the late Jamaican reggae superstar is but one small example of the disconnect between citizens of the United States and the Caribbean nation.
Even a year into the Obama administration, there’s little sign of change in Washington’s 50-year policy of hostility toward Cuba. But that’s not dissuading Vermonters, both inside and outside state government, from pushing ahead with their own efforts to normalize relations with the communist-ruled island.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie  says he hopes to build on his success as lieutenant governor in engineering one of the few U.S.-Cuba trade deals of the past decade. “Absolutely, I think we can do something like it again,” Dubie says in regard to the 2005 sale to Cuba of 74 Vermont heifers and 4000 metric tons of powdered milk. “We remain engaged and are looking for opportunities for future transactions.”
J. Parke Wright , a 59-year-old Florida cattleman with family ties to Vermont and connections with the Castro brothers, also believes additional deals can and will be made. Wright helped broker the cow and milk sales as well as the 2008 baseball diplomacy trip by Vermont and New Hampshire Little Leaguers. “I’m always working on possibilities,” the Stetson-wearing Wright said recently over a round of rum and beer in one of the bars in Havana’s art deco-era Hotel Nacional. “We’ll be able to make something happen.”
Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca , a Cuban American who frequently visits family on the island, says he will cultivate high-level contacts when he travels there in May on an official visit. “For all the faults Cuba has, their education system is probably the best in Latin America,” Vilaseca suggests. “I want to see if there are opportunities for Vermont teachers to travel to Cuba. I want to be ready to get it going when the restrictions are finally lifted. That day will come.”
Maybe not soon, however.
Dubie thought he could do a follow-up deal involving a shipment of 4000 bushels of Vermont apples, but the Bush administration stalled on issuing visas to Cuban fruit inspectors. And the Obama administration so far shows little inclination to unclamp the constraints on commerce with a country eager to do business with Vermont farmers.
“The U.S. trade embargo of more than 45 years is something we consider crazy,” says Alberto Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.. “It doesn’t affect only the Cuban government and the Cuban people; it also affects the producers and the people of Vermont and the whole United States.”
Vermonters should come and see Cuba for themselves, Gonzalez suggests, even though travel by Americans remains officially prohibited in most circumstances. “They will find Cubans love the people of the United States” — despite the U.S. government’s undiminished determination to strangle the only socialist state in the Americas.
Burlington College is among the few institutions in the United States able to accept the Cubans’ open-ended invitation. Ten students from the small liberal-arts school on North Avenue are enrolled in a 16-week study program at the University of Havana. It’s the third consecutive year that Burlington College will have sent students to Cuba under a special license granted by OFAC.
“Getting a license is a very difficult process,” says Sandy Baird, director of the college’s international studies department. She persisted with the semester-in-Cuba initiative because “comprehensive study of the Americas requires study of Cuba. Most Americans don’t understand the situation in Cuba.”
Even officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana are “incredibly ignorant” of what’s happening in Cuba today, says Judy Greenberg, a Brattleboro psychologist who makes a point of talking with American diplomats whenever she travels to Cuba. Most recently, Greenberg led an OFAC-licensed group of Vermont health care and social service workers who met with their Cuban counterparts. Workers at the U.S. Interests Section are prohibited from traveling more than 10 miles from their desks in Havana, while the same limitation is applied to Cubans staffing their country’s Interests Section in Washington. “It used to be an even shorter distance,” Greenberg notes, “but it was expanded because the Americans wanted to go to the beach and the Cubans wanted to go to the mall.”
Greenberg is one of several activists in southern Vermont working to force a thaw in Washington’s attitude toward Cuba. Brattleboro Union High School  history teacher Tim Kipp hopes to take 10 students on a study tour to Cuba this spring. Among them is Kai-Ming Pu, a 16-year-old junior who wants to volunteer in a medical clinic. He recently wrote a research paper on “the degrading of the Cuban health care system partly because of the U.S. trade embargo.”
Kai-Ming telephoned OFAC this month with the aim of persuading officials to give the Brattleboro group a license to visit. After encountering “a bunch of robot recordings,” he left four voice messages with an OFAC official and never heard back.
Dan MacArthur, a farmer and construction company owner in Marlboro, also wants to contribute to Cuba’s medical services. He took along a supply of syringes and rubber gloves on a recent trip — without an OFAC license.
“The embargo and the travel ban are just ridiculous and so unfair,” MacArthur says. “It’s been completely counterproductive for the past 50 years. It hasn’t worked, and no one here or there has benefitted.”
MacArthur has visited Cuba for each of the past six years, usually traveling on an OFAC license related to medical relief. Working through the Vermont Cuba Solidarity Group  in Windham County, he has also helped coordinate annual shipments of bicycles and, more recently, construction tools donated by Brattleboro-area residents and by the town’s Brown & Roberts hardware store.
These “friendshipments” are sponsored by Pastors for Peace , a national group that seeks to break the embargo. “Their work is clearly in defiance of U.S. restrictions, which is one of the reasons we support their efforts,” MacArthur says. And by traveling to Cuba himself in violation of OFAC’s rules, MacArthur aims to push the Obama administration into ending “this absurd policy.”
History teacher Kipp expresses a similar objective. By rallying local support for the planned visit by Brattleboro High students, Kipp suggests that “maybe we can develop some political pressure to get Obama to stand up on his hind legs.”
Political repression in Cuba is cited by U.S. officials as a key reason why the embargo remains in force. Cuba spokesman Gonzalez points out, however, that the U.S. maintains friendly relations with several countries regarded as systematic human rights abusers. “My government has said it is willing to discuss anything with the United States — anything,” he declares, adding that Cuba expects the United States to respect its “sovereignty and Cuba’s positions on human rights and other issues.”
Dubie says he emphasized human rights concerns during meetings he held with Cuban officials during two trips to the island. “I wasn’t going to refuse to talk about uncomfortable topics just to get an ag deal done,” he recounts. In requesting meetings with Cuban dissidents, Dubie says, he told government leaders that “Vermonters need to know I can talk with anyone in your country.” The meetings were arranged. “I think they came to respect us more because of our stand,” Dubie says.
Questions about democracy and individual freedom in Cuba seem of less significance to some of the Vermonters advocating an end to the embargo.
Calling himself “an unreconstructed Marxist,” Kipp, 62, says he sees Cuba as “the only country that has really tried to live up to its revolutionary ideals.” Greenberg seems similarly smitten with the romance of revolution. She recalls becoming intrigued by Cuba after a classmate at the private Walden School in Manhattan traveled there in the 1970s as a volunteer sugar-cane cutter.
“The human rights situation in Cuba is so complex we really have no idea what it means,” she says. Limitations on press freedom are roughly the same in the United States as in Cuba, Greenberg finds, noting, “I’ve sat around many tables and listened to Cubans strongly criticize their government.”