Macomb County delegation visits Cuba

By: Thomas Franz | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published February 3, 2016

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MOUNT CLEMENS — A group of 25 individuals with ties to Macomb County recently returned from a “people-to-people” excursion to Cuba to find out what life is like there, and how things are changing for the local people.

Through their travels, the group spoke with several professors who are experts in Cuban culture and history. The tour took them to stay in tourist hotels in Havana, and also “casa particulares,” which are privately owned bed-and-breakfasts in smaller towns where hotels cannot be found.

Ed Bruley, secretary for the Macomb Cultural and Economic Partnership, was one of the individuals on the trip, which took place in early January.

“It’s the beginning of private enterprise. People are able to basically have these private bed-and-breakfasts where they provide the housing and breakfast,” Bruley said. “That’s how they’ve introduced tourism to the other parts of the country. It benefits people directly. It really makes a difference in individual Cuban lives because this is their own small business.”

Privately owned restaurants are also beginning to pop up throughout the country, Bruley said. The staples of the Cuban diet are rice and beans, with pork, beef and chicken.

One unique aspect to Cuban food that they learned on the tour is that it’s all organic, but that’s not completely by choice.

“They don’t have the money to use fertilizer,” Bruley said. “All of that is embargoed, so they don’t do anything with chemicals.”

Macomb County Commissioner Robert Mijac, D-Sterling Heights, also went on the trip, and he said that the appearance of Cuba’s countryside seems like it would be suitable for a boom in agriculture. However, Mijac said Cuba imports 80 percent of its food supplies.

“It’s hard to imagine because when you travel the countryside of Cuba, you see they have so much rural area and farmland, but the problem they have is they don’t have access to capital and the loan system for someone to get a loan for farming equipment,” Mijac said.

Trying to obtain basic necessities like farming supplies seems to exemplify the current struggles of the Cuban people.

The group learned that while the Cuban government provides free education and free health care, the technology is not up to date, thereby creating challenges in medicine.

Cubans don’t pay taxes, but that is primarily because they make so little money, Bruley added. Bruley used an example of a Cuban barber shop to show how most of the country’s economy remains controlled by the government.

“They’re behind where China is. China opened up 30 years ago more quickly and more rapidly. They’re at the very beginning because we just established diplomatic relations, and then we still have to deal with the embargo, which is established by Congress, so it will take congressional action to change that,” Bruley said.

Through meeting with local professors, economists and regular citizens, Mijac feels the Cuban people desire to have normal trade with the U.S.

“The Cubans really want normalization of trade; they want an opportunity just like everyone else,” Mijac said.

Bruley came away with the same conclusion, but how much Cuba will open up to privatization and normal trade relations will depend on its government.

“They want the change. The question is, how much will the government allow them?” Bruley said. “According to the experts who talked to us, they understand there’s a movement for change somewhat. How much they’ll do, I don’t know, but I think the more influence, the more Americans who go, and the more we support the independent business and free enterprise, the more rapidly things will change.”

After having time to reflect on the trip, Mijac said he would contact Michigan’s senators in Congress to give his opinion on trade efforts with Cuba.

“For me personally, obviously visiting Cuba and seeing the enormous potential for both the Cuban people and Americans, and for businesses in Michigan, I’d like to definitely contact Sens.  (Debbie) Stabenow and (Gary) Peters to give my opinion that we should have normalization of trade with Cuba. As a citizen, that’s all I can do,” Mijac said.

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