Havana goes West
Conservative Western Republicans embrace the Cuban cause
Among the countless mementos Fidel Castro collected during his many years as president of Cuba is a signed sketch of a little salmon swimming upstream. Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter scribbled the diagram during one of his four lengthy meetings with Castro, in response to a detailed question about salmon and dams in the West.
Otter is one of a motley crew of conservative Western Republicans who object to U.S. policy toward Cuba. They say it's an insult to their notions of freedom and democracy, not to mention a barrier to the free flow of Western agricultural goods.
"It wasn't up until I became a member of Congress that I finally realized it wasn't a law of Cuba against United States citizens," Otter said last spring during a bus tour of Ernest Hemingway's old stomping grounds on the Caribbean island. "It was the United States government against United States citizens."
The 46-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, which bars most trade with and travel to the island, has been tightened under the Bush administration. Otter says it is anti-family and anti-individual. "How would you like it if your government said you can only see your mother once every three years?" he says. "That's what they're telling Cubans who live in the United States."
Not that many of those Cuban-Americans live in Idaho. Or Arizona. Or Wyoming. But the few who do have captured politicians' ears.
Manuel Lopez, one of just a handful of Cubans in Wyoming, runs a hotel in Jackson. He knew Dick Cheney before Cheney became vice president to the brother of the Florida governor and a Cuba hardliner; Cheney's daughter, Elizabeth, held a reception at Lopez's hotel after her 1993 marriage.
The Wyoming Cubans also include a rock climber in Jackson whose parents are Cuban, a woman who's lived in Casper since 1952, the guy who runs the mental hospital in Evanston and a Cubana who is married to a cowboy in Pinedale.
Lopez has two kids, though he does not consider them really Cuban. Before his parents died, the family visited them in Cuba every year; now, he is barred by the embargo from traveling there. "The majority of us - we feel very different than the politicians in Miami," Lopez told me. "I go with more of the common-sense approach than the angry approach."
Lopez and others have convinced Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi that the long-standing embargo is not effective and is particularly hard on Cuban-Americans with family on the island. Last year, Enzi introduced a bipartisan bill to open up travel to Cuba. He's been a leading advocate of ending the trade embargo, and sees the current policy as absurd. "If we allow travel to Cuba, if we increase trade and dialogue, we take away the Cuban government's ability to blame the hardships of the Cuban people on the United States," Enzi wrote in an e-mail. "In a very real sense, the more we work to improve the lives of the Cuban people, the more we will reduce the level and the tone of the rhetoric used against us by the Cuban government."
Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican with libertarian leanings, puts it even more bluntly: "It's an issue of freedom," he says, "and I think that kind of speaks to Western members who are a little more individualist and don't think our government should tell us where we can and can't travel."
Robert Muse, an attorney who represents companies with claims against Cuba, says free travel and trade are part of the Western American ethos. And the iconography of the Cuban revolution - the guns and cigars - appeals to a Western ideal of undiluted masculinity, he says. Also, Westerners are suckers for a fair fight (the little island is still there), and for a quick buck.
"There is a kind of pragmatic mercantilism that has always been a factor in states that export primary commodities," says Muse.
In 2000, Congress allowed limited sales of food and medicine to Cuba. More than half of the states have since sent delegations to the island to explore trade. Even the Navajo Nation has inked a deal with the Cuban food import agency for pinto and black beans.
Agricultural exports to Cuba peaked at less than $400 million a few years ago, with most U.S. exports shipped through a half-dozen large commodity companies like Cargill, Riceland or Tyson. Still, the state delegations have become a key propaganda tool for the Cubans, and for anti-embargo politicians like Flake and Otter.
When Otter went to Cuba last April with a group of Idaho farmers and academics, the delegation came away with promises to buy $100,000 in boneless pork legs. But international trade aside, the Idahoans were impressed by Cuban schools and hospitals and wined and dined by Cuban officials, who lamented the effects of the embargo. Otter says he brought the group to Cuba partly to educate them about U.S.-Cuba policy.
Not every Western visitor has been embraced by Cuba, however.
During a 1998 visit, Armando Menocal, a second-generation Cuban-American from Jackson, "discovered" some great rock. "I found all these great limestone walls and I was back within two months. I was back with a climbing team," he says. Menocal launched what has become a rapidly growing climbing scene on the island. But the Cuban government, unsure of how to deal with the sport, banned him from returning.
"They haven't authorized climbing yet and until they authorize it you're not supposed to be doing it," says Menocal, who has been profiled in climbing magazines and in the Wall Street Journal. Still, he remains enthusiastic. "I think Cuba would be a great adventure-sport destination place," he says.
And if Otter, Flake and Enzi get their way, he'll likely be back - one of many Westerners arriving in Havana's old harbor, fly rods, mountain bikes and carabineers at the ready.
Nathaniel Hoffman is an independent reporter in Boise, Idaho. He edits PaleoMedia.org