On June 16, surrounded by approving Miami Cuban expats, President Donald Trump announced he was reinstating curbs on travel to and business with Cuba that were relaxed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. He also called for maintaining the embargo on the socialist Caribbean island nation of 11.5 million.

My philosophical disagreement with Trump’s move was intensified by self-interest. June 16 was the date by which I had to submit my final payment (a not inconsequential sum) to a tour agency for a trip to Cuba a friend and I planned for July.

Since my early teens, I’ve hankered to visit the forbidden neighbor just 90 miles from the U.S. Partly because I couldn’t, partly because I loved the vibrant Latin culture it exuded, but mostly because of a fascination with Cuba’s socialist revolution. Led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, joined by Argentinian poet and doctor Che Guevara, the idea of a classless society after the 1959 overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista buoyed my youthful idealism, even if the goals of egalitarianism were not entirely realized.

Luckily, our trip was safe since we had arranged it through an educational program.

Over six days in July, I found a beautiful country full of paradoxes, beginning with the stately Spanish architecture that has been repurposed into, among other things, a Museum of the Revolution and government ministries. The ubiquitous vintage American cars from pre-revolutionary days still provide transportation, though you might find a 2012 Toyota engine inside a 1950s Buick body. Some cars even run on boat engines. 

I found a burgeoning Havana art scene, including an edgy gallery and concert space (Fabrica de Arte Cubano) and superb restaurant (El Cocinero), housed in a former oil factory.

But mostly in Cuba I found people who are engaging, well educated, thoughtful, proud — and kind.

My first encounter was on the flight from Newark, N.J., to Havana when a pre-teen girl sitting near me and traveling alone offered to share the hot meal she had brought. “Quieres?” she asked sweetly, motioning at the food. She was returning home from a dance workshop in the U.S. She performs modern, jazz, salsa, Afro-Cuban and ballet and attends private school in Havana.

Already she had put a different face on Cuban life than the one of squalor and repression we’ve long heard about. And already, I was being exposed to the non-material values Che had envisioned when he said economic transformation must be accompanied by a shift in personal values from greed to the collective good.

But Cubans do face hardships and irritants, including the low government-set wages. Skilled professionals, like doctors and engineers, earn less than waiters and taxi drivers. Offsetting the salaries is free, government-provided education and medical care, housing subsidies and food ration cards — though supplies quickly run out.

Socialism has its ups and downs. For me, the break from constant bombardment by commercials was a refreshing change. People actually sit out on their front stoops and talk. But newspapers and TV stations in Cuba are government-controlled and reflect that viewpoint. Foreign shows are not available, and internet access is spotty. Also, word is your browsing is monitored.

Official attitudes have also eased since the 1960s, when religion, gays and travel abroad were verboten. A 1992 constitutional amendment established Cuba as a secular rather than atheist state. People go mostly to Catholic church, but the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria is practiced, too.

Cubans credit Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, for her advocacy for gay rights. A racy photo exhibit showed some older women in a passionate kiss, and even gender reassignment surgery is free. Also, by law, Cuban women must earn the same as men, and occupy almost half the seats in the Cuban National Assembly.

From my observations, black Cubans disproportionately populated the poor areas, but I also noticed more interaction between black and white people than in the U.S. In fact, our guide told us of his shock when a tour group of Americans he was showing around, half black and the other half white, separated themselves by race into two tables. He said that wouldn’t happen in Cuba, so he pulled them together.

Cuba has paid mightily for nationalizing U.S. industries through the trade embargo that has endured nearly 60 years. The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, and signed by Bill Clinton, even barred foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. Under it, any boat that has traded with Cuba in the previous six months may not dock at a U.S. port. These sanctions were promoted as supportive of the Cuban people, but Torricelli said their goal was to “wreak havoc on that island” — a strange idea of supporting Cubans.

In truth, U.S. policy toward Cuba and much of Central America has been part of the problem, often at the behest of U.S. corporations doing business there rather than in the country’s interests.

But both Castro and Cuban civilians express desire for a new relationship. “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and coexist, respecting our differences and promoting everything that benefits both countries and peoples,” Castro said. 

It’s time to set aside the enmity and engage respectfully as neighbors. Cuba needs encouragement, not punishment, to continue on its path to reforms.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register