By Maria Saporta
As I write this, Father’s Day is coming to a close.
The day has been filled with memories of Papa – interrupted by the news of the day.
One memory of Papa keeps colliding with today’s news of President Donald Trump refreezing the thawing restrictions of U.S. trade and travel with Cuba.
I traveled back to mid-1998 when Papa (Ike Saporta) had been in intensive care and intubated for nearly a week. Finally, as he stabilized, the tube was removed, and he kept trying to talk – but his voice was rough and hard to understand.
Slowly I pieced together what he was trying to say. Instead of talking about his near-death experience, Papa was agitated about our nation’s restrictive policy towards Cuba.
Dr. Jonathan Langberg came to check on him and asked how he was doing. Papa started croaking in his hard-to-understand voice. Dr. Langberg looked to me for help.
“My father is really upset about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.”
Without missing a beat, Dr. Langberg said: “As well he should be.”
Papa, who died a few months later in November 1998, would have applauded President Barack Obama’s efforts to open up ties with Cuba. Both he and Mama were citizens of the world who believed in the freedom of travel and trade among nations.
Papa also knew the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba hurt the United States almost as much as it did the struggling island nation 90 miles south of Miami.
It goes without saying that if he were alive today, Papa would be furious with Trump’s backward-thinking moves to return to a failed policy more than 50 years in the making.
Many Republicans (and Democrats) also are uncomfortable with Trump’s isolationist tendencies towards Cuba (and the rest of the world) – including some in Georgia, who have expressed their displeasure in private settings.
After all, Georgia is one of the major beneficiaries in the opening up of economic and social relations to Cuba.
Tommy Irvin, Georgia’s agricultural commissioner from 1969 to 2010, led the state’s first trade mission to Cuba in October, 2000 and another one two years later. Irvin saw the opportunities for Georgia companies to sell poultry, soybeans and other agricultural products to Cuba. He also saw the opportunity for some of Georgia’s largest companies – such as the Coca-Cola Co. – to forge stronger business ties with Cuba.
The current agricultural commissioner, Gary Black, followed in Irvin’s footsteps in seeking closer trade relations. He was one of the top Georgia officials who signed on with “Engage Cuba” – a group that has advocated for the lifting of travel restrictions and greater access to the Cuban market for U.S. farmers and companies.
Even closer to Trump’s inner circle is former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
During his confirmation hearing, Perdue repeatedly supported measures to expand trade with Cuba.
“That’s a country that’s hungry,” Perdue testified just this March. “I led a delegation there in 2010 from Georgia, and they wanted our product. They could just not afford it and pay for it there based on the financial crisis that they were in. So, hopefully we can mitigate that.”
According to the Fence Post, a nationwide agricultural newspaper, Perdue was asked by Sen. John Boozman (R-Arkansas) about his views towards Cuba.
Perdue noted that Cuban officials had told him they could not afford to buy U.S. food products because current U.S. law requires them to go through Europe for financing and they have to take “a financial haircut.”
The Fence Post went on to say that Perdue demonstrated his knowledge of agriculture outside the South, saying that Cuban exports are important not only to Southeastern states but to Midwestern states that produce edible beans and that “private financing” needs to be improved.
The reversal in policy impacts not just agriculture.
Georgia’s second largest industry is travel and tourism. Our own Delta Air Lines began flying non-stop to Havana from Atlanta last Dec. 1, and it is a destination that was beginning to grow for U.S. travelers and vice-versa.
Given the anti-Cuba sentiment in Miami, Atlanta and the state of Georgia stand well-positioned to become a major U.S. gateway to Cuba and a top destination for Cuban visitors.
But Trump, in a speech he made in Miami on Friday, said: “”I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”
Where are the voices of business leaders who are pro-trade and pro-business? Where are the people who believe travel and tourism actually bring people closer together and help make the world a safer place for us all?
So for much of Father’s Day, I thought of when I was sitting next to Papa while he was lying on his hospital bed – listening to him complain about our misguided trade embargo with Cuba.
I can only imagine what he would say today.
By the way, that same day, I did ask Papa what he remembered about being intubated while in the ICU.
“I almost checked out,” he said.
“I know. So what was it like?
A glow came over Papa.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “There were waves of colors crashing against each other. Bright colors of red, orange, yellow, all kinds of colors, crashing and flowing into each other.”
Papa, hoping colors are crashing and flowing all around you.