Congresswoman Barbara Lee addresses Town Hall Los Angeles at the City Club in Downtown L.A. June 27. Photos by Charlene Muhammad for Sentinel
Congresswoman Barbara Lee addresses Town Hall Los Angeles at the City Club in Downtown L.A. June 27. Photos by Charlene Muhammad for Sentinel

Interested in visiting or doing business with the large Caribbean island nation of Cuba? Do it now, encouraged Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) during Town Hall Los Angeles, held at the City Club on June 27.

“We’ve had over 50 years now of isolationists policies. We’re finally beginning to forge a new path forward, together with our Cuban neighbors,” Lee stated.

With all of its richness – art, culture, education, and healthcare – Cuba needs help with its infrastructure, she told the public forum participants. That includes assistance with waste management, building houses, upgrading its water systems, construction, and tractors for farming.

“Just remember, Cuba is a sovereign country,” Rep. Lee told the audience of dignitaries, politicians, educators, and other business professionals. They filled the venue to hear her take on whether normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations will improve human rights in the island nation.

Lee said she cautioned U.S. officials who are negotiating the terms of relations with Cuba. “Yes. We are firm and I’m even one of the strong advocates for human rights abroad, but I’m also a strong advocate for human rights right in our own country,” she said.

Lee stated America is a work in progress and still has a lot of unfinished business around human rights at home.

“Yes. We put human rights on the table, but we have to put it on the table in a respectful way … because countries are not happy with how we tell them what to do in their own countries,” Lee said.

America should stand for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she went on, and added, “We should agree that it’s a human rights violation when you look at the mass incarceration of African American men in America. That’s a human rights violation,” she emphasized, garnering applause.

Lee also talked about current events around Cuba and how she sees things moving forward.

Internet giant Google is there now, developing Cuba’s broadband, and work is underway to develop more standard banking operations, according to Lee.

On the healthcare front, Cuba’s developed a cure for Diabetic foot ulcers – Herberprot, which could have a great impact on Americans, Lee said.

She has visited the clinics and seen the drug’s effectiveness, she said. “This treatment prevents about 80 percent amputations,” she said. The U.S. has been trying for years to get a license to conduct clinical trials, and finally, it has obtained the license and approval for the trials.

But, because of the laws, we can’t move forward to say, well if the clinical trials work, then we have the license to market the drug, she said.

Lee also gave a brief snapshot of U.S.-Cuba relations, from the time President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration imposed the first trade embargo in 1960, after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

The American backed government of Fulgenico Batista was pushed out and Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement empowered.

When she first visited Cuba in 1977 with the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the aim was to look at the nation’s criminal justice system, judiciary, and its race relations, she recalled.

She met many Afro-Cubans, whose economic struggles were truly intensified by the U.S. Trade Embargo, she said.

“According to recent statistics, the embargo has cost the island’s economy more than $1 trillion, and in fact, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly voted, and this is most recently, 188 to 2 to condemn the embargo,” Lee said.

Of course, the U.S. has been isolated in the world in terms of its policy in relations with Cuba, she stated. Not only was the embargo bad for Americans because they were prevented from seeing the reality of the country just 90 miles away, but it was also an unjust burden on the people of Cuba, she said.

She wanted more people to see for themselves what she witnessed, so they could make up their own minds about Cuba. Thus, she began her bi-partisan advocacy work in 1977.

Currently, Lee is pushing two bills, “The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act” (H.R. 664), which would lift the travel ban. The other, “Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2015,” would remove the sanctions that are restricting agricultural and medical trade.
Lee has hosted Congressional and business professional delegations and others during her some 24 visits. Each time, she said, she is struck by its beautiful people.

She saluted Congresswomen Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) for being at the forefront of efforts to end the embargo and travel ban for many years.

“Decades later, I tell you, to be with the President (Barack Obama) when he shook hands with President Raul Castro, and to visit Cuba on that day was very humbling for me as someone who has been out there and finally seeing this work bearing fruit,” Lee said.

“The road was not easy, and it’s still not easy,” Lee said.

During a Q&A session, she addressed concerns around democracy, trickle down finances, and aiding Cuban entrepreneurs who want to do business with Americans.

There will not be a full democratization of a country with their own rules, and as a socialist country, Lee said. However, she noted there have already been a lot of changes, such as an emergence of private sectors.

Cuban Pres. Raul Castro really believes that the social benefits of the Revolution should be maintained Lee said. For instance, they do not want to privatize their defense or health departments, or education ministries. Cuba is 99 percent literate, she remarked.

Carl Dickerson, Town Hall Los Angeles vice chair, who hosted the event, was pleased with the turn out and the information Lee shared.

“Congresswoman Barbara Lee, I think, hit the ball out of the park the way she explained the Cuban opportunity to us very succinctly and with detail,” Dickerson said.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Town Hall Los Angeles Vice Chair Carl E. Dickerson at the City Club in Downtown L.A. June 27. (Photo by Charlene Muhammad)
Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Town Hall Los Angeles Vice Chair Carl E. Dickerson at the City Club
in Downtown L.A. June
27. (Photo by Charlene Muhammad)