I didn’t go to Cuba to be a tourist. I went to be part of a resistance to the longstanding U.S. war against Cuba. Undeluded by Obama’s new tactics of regime change and goaded by Trump’s abrasive rhetoric, I felt compelled last month to join the Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan, just as I had ten years ago. This time, as then, I was struck by the many successes of the Cuban Revolution, despite the endless U.S. attempts to undermine and overthrow its government.
Things between our two countries really haven’t gotten that much better lately. While Obama set a new tone and made some moves towards so-called “normalization,” what he didn’t do, and couldn’t do, was eliminate the blockade. Commercial, economic, and financial in nature, this act of war, begun in the 1960s, is still very much in place, and still inflicts untold harm on ordinary people in Cuba. Dropping this blockade is a sine non qua for any honest attempt at normalization.
Part of the blockade is a set of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, requiring that people and organizations apply for and be granted a license from the government in order to travel to Cuba.
For 25 years now, Pastors for Peace has deliberately defied the blockade, in annual acts of civil disobedience, by refusing to apply for the travel license and bringing both people and material assistance to the people of Cuba. It’s not done on the sly, but out in the open for all to see, to publicize the inhumanity of the blockade. And, I must say, it’s done with heart and joy, not with some dire sense of foreboding about violating the law. As the late Reverend Lucius Walker, founder of Pastors for Peace, used to say, these are pastoral trips meant to express love and solidarity with our Cuban neighbors.
With this purpose in mind, and before even setting foot in Cuba, I was already in a mindset to embrace the Cubans I would meet as brothers and sisters and to be open to hearing their truths about their lives, their government, and their perspectives about the world we all live in. Long ago, I ceased to believe in the demonization of Fidel Castro and the revolution he successfully led against the corrupt Batista regime. And well have I understood the evils of our own rampant capitalist system and the courageous struggle in Cuba and elsewhere to establish a more humane socialist alternative.
On my previous trip I had witnessed Cuba’s excellent and free health care and education for all, no homelessness, no starvation, strong support for the arts, community gardens, and lots of ride sharing. I also learned about and got to visit the most amazing gift of the Cuban government, the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM in its Spanish acronym), which provides absolutely free medical education for students from around the world, with the only stipulation being that upon graduation, when they become doctors, they must go back to their countries and serve the poor.
This from a poor country!
On this more recent trip, I got a closer look as we visited grass roots organizations and enterprises that stood in stark contrast to realities in the U.S. For example:
• a day center for the elderly (where residents were provided excellent free medical care,
participated in all kinds of lively activities, and very visibly enjoyed life with each other. They played music for us, enacted plays, then got us up to dance with them!)
• a home for “children without family support” as they call these small neighborhood houses for those we would call orphans (where adults and kids sat with us in a living room as though they were a real family, talking about going to school, the daily schedule of eating, cleaning up, doing homework, play time, maybe going out on dates for the teens, etc. There was real affection among them – in stark contrast to our impersonal institutions);
• a biotech laboratory (where they have produced vaccines and medicines for controlling diabetes,
meningitis, prostate cancer, hepatitis B, skin cancer, lung cancer, and more.
They have developed medicines that we would benefit from in the U.S. if our blockade were lifted);
• an agricultural cooperative run by women (there are many voluntary and democratically run farming coops in Cuba that organize and provide support to farmers with crop production and animal husbandry, tools, credit, insurance, and so on);
• a government owned appliance factory (where the labor union played a strong role in ensuring equitable working conditions);
• a mountain community with indigenous roots that was developing a sustainable local economy with coffee growing and tourism (supported with government grants);
• a community theater headed by an acclaimed Argentinian producer/director (who included plays in the repertoire that were focused on social and political critique);
• a 24-hour pharmacy in a small mountain village (that included homeopathic, natural, and traditional medicines);
• a primary health clinic in the same village (where doctors lived locally and had the support of nurses and auxiliary nurses and visiting specialists and surgeons; the clinic, like ubiquitous local clinics throughout Cuba, provided a wide variety of care ranging from emergency care to vaccinations, lab tests, x-rays, ultra sound, dentistry, nutrition service, rehabilitation service, psychology; they made home visits and were intent on keeping people from having to go to the hospital in a nearby town).
We also had the opportunity to hear from:
• five surviving members of Che Guevara’s brigade during the revolution (one man told the story of how Che enforced discipline by requiring soldiers to fast for 5 days when they made infractions against the rules. Che himself would also fast for 5 days when he committed an infraction. One of the infractions was that no one was allowed to flatter Che. Once, when Che was going through one of his own fasts, his cook entreated him to stop fasting as it made him weak and the troops needed him to be strong so he could inspire and lead them. Che agreed and ended his fast, but assigned a 5 day fast to his cook for flattering him.
The man who told us this story laughed uproariously, saying that Che had a great sense of humor and his soldiers loved him);
• an ecumenical group of ministers who met with us in a mosque (and included a rabbi, imam, and variety of Christian ministers);
• a university where a group of professors and staff shared their social projects with us (students do research in local communities and contribute to their efforts in areas such as engineering, construction, farming, education, etc.);
• a panel on the history of racial discrimination – and progress – before and after the revolution (they still have problems arising from racism, but these are not sanctioned or permitted by the government and not institutionalized).
On a more sobering note, we visited a museum that memorialized the ongoing deaths and damage inflicted by the United States on Cuba since the revolution (3,478 deaths, 637 assassination attempts against Fidel, 11 bombings of tourist resorts by the CIA, 21 CIA air raids to support armed bands fighting against the Cuban government; 300,000 tons of sugar cane destroyed by 800 arson fires from September 1960 – April 1961 alone, 581 terrorist attacks at Cuban missions and personnel stationed overseas, the list goes on and on).
Only once did we meet with a government official, a diplomat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After saying that the recent Obama initiative was a step forward and Trump’s policy a step backward, and acknowledging various issues where our two countries are now working together, he reiterated the Cuban demands for full normalization:
1. The blockade must be fully lifted;
2. There must be an end to NED and USAID funding for so-called “democracy promotion” programs which are designed to subvert the constitutional order of Cuba;
3. Guantanamo must be returned to Cuba and the military base dissolved;
5. Compensations must be made. The U.S. asserts that it has claims for properties nationalized by the revolution that amount to $8 billion – this is held by Cuba to be legal by international law. But Cuba claims more than $100 billion as a result of the 50+ year-long blockade and the many damages inflicted by the U.S.-sponsored attempts to overthrow the Cuban government.
With respect to President Trump’s attitude towards Cuba, the diplomat simply said that what we are seeing from the U.S. is regrettably a return to the Cold War. He also said that the Trump Cuban policy will undoubtedly affect U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America as well. One thing he made clear was that under no circumstances will domestic issues in Cuba be part of any negotiations with the U.S. Cuba will not agree to change the its economic model, nor the electoral process (yes, there are elections, from the ground up, functioning as a kind of parliamentary system). Nor will it ever privatize essential services, most especially the health care system.
The diplomat finished his comments to our group of mostly Americans by saying, “We are not anti-American. We are anti-imperialist.”
In so many ways, we should be learning from Cuba. Of course, its government, now only 58 years old, is still struggling with many issues. It is in the throes of developing a mixed economy where private enterprise and foreign capital investment are melded into the centralized planning process. The government is aware of and working on various social issues, including racial relations and gender equity. And, as always, it is struggling for economic prosperity – to improve the material well being of all the people, not just a small percentage. The great challenge is to overcome the U.S. blockade, which also restricts other countries from trading or conducting financial arrangements with Cuba.
Is Cuba in danger now from capitalism swamping its socialist underpinnings? This is a possibility that Cubans seem very aware of. There are many young people in Cuba for whom the revolution is history and who simply want greater material prosperity. I met a number of bright, energetic, creative young people who were eager to enjoy the things that I take for granted as a middle-class American: plentiful and good food, efficient transportation, easy access to the internet, the prospect of an improving life.
International tourism abounds on this beautiful and delightful tropical island – our country is the only one that restricts its citizens from traveling there. Thus, many Cuban young people rub shoulders with those from more prosperous capitalist countries. And that creates the tension of rising expectations that threatens to destabilize a society committed to social equity. The hope is that Cuban young people will be able to see the dangers and failures of capitalism at the same time that they see the wealth.
And that is the question upon which the future of Cuba rests. Will the next generation of Cubans see what it has, compared to the harsh realities of capitalism in the United States: the extreme wealth disparity, the lack of basic necessities for so many of its citizens, the racial and religious hatreds, the mass incarceration, the corporate control of media and government, the endless wars abroad, and militarized police at home?
Many times, those of us from the U.S. tend to forget the ills of our own country as we look for the problems in Cuban society. Ten years ago, I asked our Cuban translator at the time how he answered the question so often raised about the supposed lack of freedom of speech or the press in Cuba. He sighed and looked at me like he was so tired of hearing that question. He said, “You Americans criticize the way we breathe when you have your hands around our throats.”
It’s true. The U.S. has had a strangle hold on Cuba ever since Fidel and his comrades threw us out. And yet, the Cubans have not been stifled, nor embittered. The people I met were warm and generous, and didn’t hold it against me that I was from the country that has been so hostile to them. We had a good time together.
And, maybe oddly for some to contemplate, I felt free in Cuba. Free from the alienation I constantly feel in the midst of the U.S. mainstream culture. Free from the outrage I have about the imperial and racist wars waged in my name, both at home and around the globe. Free from the abiding reality of my own complicity in being one of the privileged in a land of stark inequality and injustice.
Cuba is not a regime and does not need us to change it. It is the U.S. that is a regime and could use some help from Cuba to help us change. Why can’t we get over the sense of superiority that has been embedded in our minds and realize that we are actually worse off than others in the world, despite our relative material wealth? Why can’t we look to our brothers and sisters ninety miles away for help in saving ourselves – and the world – from the growing malignancies of capitalism, militarism, and racism? I understand that this is a dubious proposition, that we could undergo such a revolution in our thinking in the U.S.
At the very least, though, I’m looking forward to the day when Cuban demands for real normalization are met, when the U.S. is able to respect Cuba’s sovereignty, and when I no longer will be committing civil disobedience to go there for a breath of fresh air.
Ken Jones is a retired professor of teacher education living near Asheville, NC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.