Between the Lines by David Lias I've never really tried to visualize what Cuba is actually like.
My mind's eye has always viewed it as a combination of paradise and hell on earth.
I'm sure there have to be some beautiful places on the small tropical island nation.
But mention Cuba to the average Joe and what are they likely to think about? Castro, communism, a missile crisis over four decades ago, poverty, oppression.
A place where life is so miserable that hundreds of people fashion makeshift rafts and attempt to bob their way on the ocean north to Florida � and freedom.
Vermillion City Alderman and recent USD grad Drake Olson recently traveled to Cuba with a group of students. He shared his experiences, complete with slide photographs, at a recent Vermillion Rotary meeting.
It turns out what I've always hoped was just a make-believe assessment of conditions in Cuba are, in fact, very, very real.
Olson's photos showed a country that's changed very little since Castro took control.
Oh, there are a few newer, modern buildings. But many of the areas that Olson visited looked something like the set of a strange science fiction movie.
Rod Serling would feel right at home there, for Cuba seems stuck in a twilight zone. People's needs keep changing � they aren't frozen in time � but practically everything else in the country is.
A majority of the buildings look like they haven't been touched in 40 years. There's no personal wealth among the population to make any such improvements. In fact, if I remember correctly, the government practically owns and controls everything, from buildings, to the media.
Most of the cars in Olson's pictures are 40 to 50 years old. You know that a country hasn't seen much progress when some of the best modes of transportation are the very models of cars your folks drove when you were a little kid.
Cuba's poor condition can be linked, in part, to the end of trade with the United States when Castro's dictatorship began.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has also hit hard.
President George W. Bush said recently that he would only support an end to the Cuban trade embargo if Havana undertook substantial political and economic reforms and held free elections in 2003.
But in a speech his aides had portrayed as a significant policy statement, he also announced initiatives to help the Cuban people by allowing more humanitarian assistance by nongovernmental groups, and an eventual resumption of direct mail service.
And Bush included none of the tough new measures against Cuba that had been widely expected.
"The goal of the United States policy toward Cuba is not a permanent embargo on Cuba's economy," the president was quoted in a recent news report of a White House address. "The goal is freedom for Cuba's people."
Bush said that he would work with Congress to end the embargo once President Fidel Castro released all political prisoners, conducted internationally monitored National Assembly elections in 2003 and gave opposition parties equal media access.
Havana would also have to allow independent trade unions and protect worker rights.
"Full normalization of relations with Cuba, diplomatic recognition, open trade and a robust aid program will only be possible when Cuba has a new government that is fully democratic," he said.
Bush denounced Castro as a "tyrant who uses brutal methods to enforce a bankrupt vision," but administration aides told The Associated Press that the United States could live with him if he took the steps set out by Bush.
The Bush speech came a week after former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Cuba, met at length with Castro and � to the discomfort of the U.S. administration � called for an end to the trade embargo. Carter also met separately with dissident leaders and urged the people to embrace democracy.
Bush picked up on one theme sounded by Carter, voicing support for a referendum in Cuba, advocated by some of the dissidents Carter met, to ask voters whether they favored civil liberties, and amnesty for political prisoners.
By explicitly conditioning normalized relations on specific Cuban moves toward free-market democracy, Bush sought to placate Republican hard-liners and Cuban-American voters in Florida, fierce opponents of Communist rule there.
Bush also said he wanted to set up U.S. scholarships for the families of political prisoners and for Cuban students and professionals trying to build independent civil institutions.
Critics have denounced Bush's requirements of Havana as a double standard. It has not made similar demands of China, another Communist-ruled country; some in the administration have argued that freer trade there can lead to more democratic governance.
Bush said, however, that the opposite applied to Cuba.
"If Mr. Castro refuses our offer he will be protecting his cronies at the expense of his people," he said. Trade would enrich those "cronies," he said, strengthening and not weakening Castro's hold on power.
Trade would also be beneficial to � guess who? � South Dakotans. No doubt the Cuban people would benefit greatly if we were to market agricultural products there.
Sadly, Olson noted, the chances that conditions in Cuba will change appear slim. Castro, the aging dictator, could slip from power someday, only to be replaced by his brother, who reportedly is less interested in reform than Fidel.