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.