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 Americans.
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 Miccosukee.
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 society.
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!”