25,000 Pen Pals for Cuba

As long as Fidel Castro (age 84, his brother Raul is 79) is alive, U.S.-Cuban relations will be largely frozen in their present form, as will many internal aspects of Cuban society. Sometimes individual leaders become their foreign and domestic policies, and when they finally join the choir invisible, massive pent-up changes are suddenly unleashed. Examples include Gorbachev’s dramatic domestic and international reforms after the last cold war-era Soviet Chairmen bought the state-controlled farm in rapid succession in the early 1980s, and, Spain’s rapid transformation after Generalissimo Franco went for a Burton in 1975.

When the Castros hop the twig, we will have the best chance in over half a century to transform U.S.-Cuban relations. The Cubans will have an equally golden opportunity to transform their own culture and political institutions. In both endeavors, strong pre-existing bonds of friendship across the U.S.-Cuba divide will be of great value. I am not talking of friendships between heads of state, but between teachers, preachers, mayors, artists, artisans, shopkeepers, parents, senior citizens and others who might travel back and forth between the two countries and be the socio-cultural capital upon which great things are built.

We could start, as the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are doing, by promoting interaction among our children before they have a chance to absorb their parents’ biases and old grudges. A simple way to do this is to expand the many existing pen pal programs in U.S. schools to include children in Cuban schools. Both governments would have to agree to allow unencumbered mail flow and help match children by language skills but that would be the needed and desired extent of their involvement. If we started with 25,000 pen pals, we should end up in the post-Castro era with some long-standing friendships between adults that could help both societies begin a new, better era together.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

10 thoughts on “25,000 Pen Pals for Cuba”

  1. I actually have my doubts that the demise of the Castros would make much difference. The desires of the right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami– basically a restoration of the old oligarchy where they can reconstitute the white upper class of Cuba with the population enslaved– is not something that the inhabitants of the island are interested in, whether they are supporters of Castro (as many still are) or not. So the real impetus of a change of policy isn't the death of the Catros but the death of the 1960's refugees, as the younger generations in Miami and other Cuban communities in the US are much less anti-Castro.

  2. That's a nice thought. I had a pen pal when I was 6, from a few towns over, and another one from when I was 9, from Japan, I think, although it could have been China. (A visiting delegation had come to observe our class one day and I think it was in preparation for that.) The point is, I have no connection to either and I imagine none of my classmates do either. To be fair, web-based communications change this calculus a bit, but I still think this type of program is the longest of long shots.

  3. That's a GREAT thought. The Cuban people couldn't be more deserving of a chance to throw off decades of Castro's monstrous brand of socialism to join the modern world. Anything we could do to help them prepare would be superb. One only hopes that when the change does come, it is not smothered in its crib by the radical communist apologists here in the US, nor by the "oligarchists." Although, frankly, unless you so dumb-down the definition of oligarchist to mean "anyone who is not a radical socialist", the fear of a return to some mythical period when the vast majority of Cubans were enslaved (but somehow managed to lead lives that were the envy of the Carribean)…is, uhm, shall we say, overblown.

    But, that kind of thinking is in pefect lockstep with the pedantic propoganda you hear on most American college campuses today. So, you've got that going for you!

    But, even better, if you don't believe me, why don't you go ask Cubans themselves whether they prefer Castro-ism or your dreaded "oligarchism"? Oh, right, you can't. Anyone who disagreed with Castro or Che, and was unlucky enough not to have escaped, was murdered. How quaint.

  4. Luke is a bit over the top, but not more so than Dilan. It's unlikely the worst ambitions of the Cuban exiles, even were Dilan right about them, could be remotely as bad for the people remaining in Cuba as what Castro has been doing. After all, as exiles, they'd be decidedly unlikely to maintain the status of Cuba as a prison prison camp from which people flee in leaking boats because they aren't free to normally immigrate. And the right to leave would radically limit how bad things could get, compared to the current situation.

  5. Brett, it's a bit more complicated than that: as exiles, they're able to concoct a totemic status for Cuba, complete with special immigration privileges, that gives economic refugees an excellent reason to flee Cuba on the leaky boats you mention. When especially bad circumstances in Haiti caused a flood of desperate economic and political refugees to flee that island for Miami in leaky boats, we were not so welcoming: we intercepted them and dumped them in Cuba (well, held them in Guantanamo bay, most of a decade before it became a detention center for alleged unlawful combatants). I'm not saying things are good in Cuba, or even acceptable – but I suspect a lot of people in Port Au Prince would swap with Cubans in a minute. Given the policy differences, the "leaky boats" index is not very useful.

  6. The hopes of the Baltic exiles to return an run the show after independence was restored in 1991 were dashed. Likewise those of the Spanish Republican exiles after Franco died. Spain after 1975 was run by a strikingly young élite educated in Spain. Estonia´s government in 1991 was even more youthful – Mart Laar became Prime Minister at the ripe age of 31. I don´t think the Cuban exiles have a chance, unless Washington is mad enough to impose them with Marines.

  7. Warren, I wouldn't downplay the significance of a country, any country, preventing people from freely leaving the way Cuba does. It's the surest sign that a government is bad for it's citizenry, and knows it.

  8. Dilan/Luke/Brett/Warren: I am with James on this, I think the young will rule the post-Castro day within Cuba. The exiles have the same chronological problem that Castro does — they are dwindling in number. Young people in both Florida and Cuba have quite different views of each other than did their grandparents, and a different conception of what Cuba can be.

    TGGP: It's an odd expression isn't it? Originates I think with the RAF..which reminds me to suggest to our UK readers to be sure to see the new Sir Keith Park statue on Waterloo Place, it's really fantastic.

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