by Joe Tortorici
Part 1 – Let’s escape.
As a youngster I collected National Geographic maps. In those ancient times (!) there was no catalog of crisp edged satellite images. The maps I remember were artful. They came folded in every third or fourth month with the regular membership. Dad often let me visit the periodicals section at the musty Salvation Army Inlet on Clybourn. There was always a lucky find. I traveled the world from my bedroom walls; the Mediterranean, India, the Southwest Pacific, Antarctica, Ancient Rome, Scandinavia.
I often think about a map of the Caribbean. Geographically, it struck me as a common extension of the Florida/Yucatan archipelago, an exotic paradise in the shelter of the great American continent. I still dream of it…sailing among the islands at my leisure.
I like to imagine a perfect future. While the largest geographical states of Central America are contiguous, a certain engine of prosperity is the Greater Antilles. First, a re-built Puerto Rico and the restoration of diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba. Next, profitable trade agreements that will unite the island’s political interests and add to the prosperity of the region. With prosperity will come solutions for Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It will reflect the natural geographic flow of biomass across the Caribbean Sea.
The Greater Antilles, the Leeward Islands, comprises the largest islands in the Caribbean: Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. The Greater Antilles constitute nearly 90% of the land mass of the entire West Indies, as well as over 90% of its population. Let’s break it down.
There are almost twelve million people in Cuba. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba’s economic problems worsened. When the Obama administration finally extended an olive branch, it promised to be a progressive, mutually advantageous doctrine. Of course, the partisan political rancor became fever-pitched. Our daydream has none of that.
Cuba is rich in a multitude of agricultural resources. As of 2013, the output of Cuba’s mining industry was a factor in world production. The island nation can easily hold its own in any marketplace.
In 1957, just before Castro came to power, the literacy rate was 80%, higher than in Spain. Castro created an state-operated system and banned private institutions. Cuba’s current literacy rate of 99.8 percent is the tenth-highest globally, due largely to the provision of free education at every level. Cuba’s high school graduation rate is 94 percent. The only potential limit of this system is curriculum.
For example, the sale of computer equipment is strictly regulated. Internet in Cuba has some of the lowest penetration rates in the Western hemisphere, and all content is subject to review by the Department of Revolutionary Orientation. Fortunately, barriers to information are dissolving before our eyes and one can only speculate about the intellectual leap Cuba will experience in the near, inter-connected future.
The Cuban culture always stood on the periphery of our own. Sports fans of my age can remember the legendary Cuban boxer, Teófilo Stevenson. Ranked among the world’s best with more gold medals than he could count. I love to pontificate about the fundamental change that will occur in American baseball with restored Cuban relations…wait and see. In the mean time I give you José Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, and Jorge Soler. The music is unique and diverse. Chucho Valdes is my favorite for Afro-Cuban jazz. The art, literature, cuisine, and lifestyle contribute to a rich national identity. Street-dancing is known to break out spontaneously.
How will the Cuban government evolve? A Parliamentary system? Lords, Commons, and a Prime Minister who appoints a cabinet? Or a western republic. A “Presidendte” and his legislative body? The salient move is to avoid “Generalisimo!” In our ideal future, Cuba elects someone that understands a representative system. An economics professor would be a good start. Someone that sees a big picture…a leader.
There is only benefit from a normalized relationship with Cuba.
Envision an end to the current political darkness and Peurto Rico is destined to emerge as the crown jewel of American stewardship. We can renew our committment to the island of Puerto Rico, with or without statehood.
In the nightmare of their devastation are solutions. A financial restructure, sheparded with expertise and compassion, begins to address “process” issues. A separate hurdle is the unfulfilled manufacturing potential because of poor infrastructure. Here is an opportunity to develop the next generation of public works. The island is blank slate for the development of eco-friendly, sustainable sources of energy. The next wave of habitat construction that will factor in the changing elements. Contemporary and durable water resources, communication nets, emergency services… Think of the potential employment opportunities and how thriving economies come into being.
The Puerto Rican disaspora is formidable. There are almost three and a half million on the island, New York City, 723,621, Philadelphia, 121,643, and Chicago, 102,703. Another quarter million live across the country. Like Cuba, Puerto Rican culture has always been here. For my fellow Chicagoans, visit the Pilsen neighborhood for dinner. You can thank me later.
The Latino culture is under fire by the current administration. It will not always be so. Nihilism at this level is a one-hundred percent fail and eventually the pendulum will return to the center, hopefully shading to the left for progressive thinking. I don’t think statehood is the issue. The time for a new Puerto Rico has come, regardless.
Haiti’s problems are deep and need generations of repair. The best one can hope is that more inclusion will mitigate some of their economic pressures. The rising tide of local economy will benefit all ships of state, but without fail, a long range educational effort is the key to progress. It takes a plan and the will to execute it.
But this is why alliances and fraternities of nations exist. Trade agreements are not intended to be an exhibition of noblesse oblige, but functioning, mutually beneficial exchanges of goods and services. Haiti can be resuscitated to independence and sustainability with the enlightened support of its immediate neighbors. It’s in everyone’s best interests.
I began this essay with a vision of the future created from an old map and boy’s active imagination. I wanted to sail my catamaran between ports of call. Lack of independent wealth aside, the hurdles to that sort of fantasy are significant. Adulthood sucks. All I have is more questions.
Though barriers to a vagabond lifestyle in the Caribbean seem insurmountable, we can set the table for easing interaction among the island states. We have mechanisms in place, organized by experts, and woefully under-used.
One is CARIFTA. The Caribbean Free Trade Association is logical to expand and include the larger islands. Another is the Organization of American States. Twenty-one member states met in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1948 to sign the OAS Charter. Subsequently, fourteen other member states joined through 1991. The OAS represents an estimated one hundred million people over fifteen and a half million square miles. The Americas.
Part 2 of this article will examine potential solutions. As Reverend Jackson would say, “What you perceive, you can achieve.” The future is optimistic and daydreams are where ideas are made.