Our plates overflowed with fruit, rice and mystery meat; our glasses brimmed with rum. Guests of the Cuban government, we had ridden a rickety, closet-sized elevator to the top floor of a darkened building for a gala reception that entailed hours of toasts and speeches by Communist Party bureaucrats.
I peered out the window. Ten floors below, bathed in a streetlight, a man slept on a bench, his bicycle nearby.
Cuba, like its capitalist counterparts, is loaded with such social contradictions. And that divide will likely persist, despite Fidel Castro's resignation this week. Yet one of my biggest fears for Cuba is that America will intrude. With our own social chasms we have failed to close, the United States doesn't have all the answers—for Cuba, for Iraq, for any country.
Granted, Cuba's socialist goals have in many ways, failed. Nearly eight years ago, at the height of the Elián González controversy, I traveled to Cuba as part of a Sister City program. Although the country's system of free education and medical care seems idyllic to Americans laden by student loans and doctor bills, there is little real work to be had. I met a man with an advanced science degree who couldn't find a job in his field, so he worked as an official government photographer for $5 a week. When he and his wife invited my colleague and me to their home, they set places at the table for two. We ate. They watched. There wasn't enough food for everyone.
That said, there is plenty to love about Cuba. Universal health care and education, administered responsibly as it's done in Denmark, could uplift the country. The people are gracious; the culture, vibrant. There is a sense of community long lost in America.
While Cuba can't blame the U.S. embargo for all its ills, American foreign policy toward the country is absurd and hypocritical. The embargo is ostensibly in place because Cuba is a Communist country, yet we're cuddled in bed with China. China is equally repressive (remember Tiananmen Square?) with untold numbers of political prisoners and exiled dissidents. But American companies see a market of 1.3 billion people, compared to 11 million in Cuba. And the Chinese, including their children, will work for pennies to manufacture our cheap, lead-laden toys and electronics and to raise our pesticide-tainted food.
Regardless of who leads Cuba, the embargo must go; that alone will help uplift the Cuban people. Otherwise, we should not sculpt their destiny. History shows that our meddling (remember the Bay of Pigs?) often backfires—in the Middle East, in Latin America. The Cuban people deserve to reach their dreams, but those dreams aren't necessarily ours.