What did President Barack Obama mean when he declared that Washington will normalize relations with Cuba?

Will they become the same as U.S. relations with any other country? Will all Americans be free to travel there? To do business with Cuba?

Or will the strict restrictions in place for more than half a century merely get tweaked? After all, our economic embargo will remain in place unless Congress acts.

I knew very little about Cuba when I went there on a reporting trip in 2010.

I’d wanted to go ever since I found out that most Americans are banned from going there by our own government. We’re the land of the free, right? So why can’t we go to Cuba?

My contrarian desire to visit grew when I learned that Cuba had unintentionally become a haven of organic agriculture.

Here’s how that happened.

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Ed Yourdon / Flickr

After the Soviet bloc collapsed, the U.S. government tightened its embargo on the island nation. By the early 1990s, Cuba found itself without enough trading partners. That meant it lacked food, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural inputs.

Cuba faced a choice: starve, or go organic. It went organic.

The country made incredible strides in cutting pesticides and fertilizers out of its agriculture. Because Cubans are remarkably well-educated, they used modern science to develop their organic system. And it worked.

So that’s what I went there to see. I visited urban farms, learned about using beneficial insects to eliminate pests, and tasted the most delicious tropical fruits I’ve ever eaten.

I wasn’t on a political trip, but you can’t avoid politics in Cuba. In a nutshell, here’s what I learned. Most Cubans are incredibly poor. But they have a ready explanation for the economic hardships they experience.

The failure of communism? Nope. They blame the U.S. embargo.

From their point of view, maybe the Castros would have managed to muddle along just fine if it weren’t for the American embargo. So until Washington drops its economic blockade, the Cuban government will always have a ready-made excuse for why its people are so poor.

If you want Cuba to change its ways, why not take that excuse away from the Castro brothers? Let them take full responsibility for Cuba’s well-being, for better or worse.

When I returned, U.S. customs personnel gave me the run-around despite my having traveled legally as a journalist. I became irate at the hypocrisy. After I spent a summer in Beijing back in college, no one gave me a hard time — because the U.S. has no embargo or travel ban on China.

Why is it OK for us to go to (and do business with) communist China but not communist Cuba? The double standard pokes a hole in every single justification given for keeping the embargo in place.

I’m so grateful to Obama for taking a step toward bringing an end to this nonsense. I hope Congress now goes whole hog and restores the U.S.-Cuba relationship to sanity by ending the embargo once and for all.

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OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org.