In downtown Havana during President George W. Bush's administration, U.S. officials constructed a giant electronic billboard on our diplomatic building there to broadcast American propaganda at the Cuban people.
The Cuban government was so incensed that it erected dozens of 100-foot-high flag poles flying huge black Cuban flags to block the view. Any Cubans who might wander by to gaze skyward at American messages were shooed away by Cuban security.
It's been 50 years since Fidel Castro's "revolution" on the island just 90 miles south of Key West, and U.S.-Cuban relations remain deeply mired in the Cold War. This stalemate has contributed to shocking poverty among Cubans, whose average monthly income is $17, and who suffer from routine food, electricity and housing shortages.
And it's created a bizarre Twilight Zone society which is like stepping back into history a half century. The few cars on the streets are Chevys and Studebakers from the '40s and '50s. You easily visualize the likes of Frank Sinatra hanging out at deteriorating art deco hotels along the Malecon, Havana's ocean-front boulevard.
And the handsome Che Guevara, Castro's revolutionary partner killed in 1967 while trying to spread the revolution to Bolivia, peers from billboards and monuments.
I spent four days in Havana last month with six other chiefs to U.S. senators from both political parties as a guest of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a non-governmental organization advocating improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba. We packed in 18 meetings with journalists, ambassadors, academics, government officials, musicians, organic farmers and the top U.S. official.
Our mission: Examine Cuba's economy and society, American policy and whether it should be changed.
America soured on Castro shortly after he chased off Cuba's previous dictator in 1959. The U.S. imposed a trade embargo in 1962, hoping to use economic strangulation to overthrow the Castro regime. It's been in place ever since, along with a travel prohibition on U.S. citizens.
The embargo also means that no product with U.S. content can be legally imported. We heard one story about a foreign company forced to replace every American-made bolt on an oil rig so it could be used to develop Cuba's oil reserves.
The American agriculture industry is chomping to get access to Cuba's 11 million residents hungry for U.S. food products. Alabama's agriculture secretary was a day ahead of us to Havana, hoping to sell his state's chicken to Cuba.
Complicating American policy toward Cuba is the Castro government's behavior, especially on human rights. Shortly before leaving for Havana, we met with the sister of a Cuban dissident whose brother had been jailed for 17 years just for a peaceful protest in a city park.
Fidel, and now his brother, Raul, control daily life in Cuba, from quotas on food rations to dictating media coverage. An estimated 225 hardcore Cuban dissidents remain in jail, with potentially thousands more arrested periodically.
Some restrictions do seem to be loosening. The Catholic Church operates fairly freely throughout the nation, and the editor of a church magazine we met reported that he writes about virtually any subject.
Congress and the Obama administration are considering more progressive policies. For the first time since President Bush ended talks in 2004, the Obama administration recently met with Cuban officials to discuss open migration and resumption of mail service.
A bill, S.428, to lift the travel ban is in the Senate. It has attracted 31 co-sponsors from across the political spectrum. A little-noticed provision in an offshore oil drilling bill recently introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski would allow travel to Cuba in connection with oil development there.
The primary barrier to improved relations seems to be a handful of senators, some with Cuban roots, who represent constituents who fled from Cuba and still resent the Castro takeover.
After 50 years, it's obvious U.S. policy has worked only to punish the Cuban people rather than their government. Unrestricted American travel, trade and ideas will do more to bring enlightenment to Cuba than continuing a misguided policy of an era long passed.
David Ramseur is chief of staff to Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.
By DAVID RAMSEUR
Alaska Dispatch Publishing