On June 7 we met with economist Gladys Hernández to talk about the Cuban economic situation and the effects on the Cuban economy by the US trade embargo. One of the first things that Mrs. Hernandez said to us was that Cuba and the US do have a relationship, but it is a love hate relationship. The effects on Cuba from the United States and vice versa go way back from when The US won Cuba from Spain as a spoil of the Spanish-American War. Nowadays many Cubans jokingly say that the second largest city in Cuba and almost every Cuban we met has some sort of relative in the United States. Because of such a large populations of Cubans living in the US remittances are big businesses making up about 2% of Cuba’s GDP. Many Cubans live off of the money they receive from relatives in the US. Cuba also had close relations to other socialist countries during the time after the revolution up to the ending of the eastern European socialist block. There was a time when Cuba received 98% of its oil, 75% of its food and 80% of its spare parts from the socialist block. Obviously once the Soviet Union ended in 1991 this affected Cuba greatly when these things no longer came to the island, between the years of 1991 and 1994 the Cuban economy decreased by 40% because of the lack of materials. During this time as well there was a large increase of Cubans crossing the Florida straits by any means necessary to get to the United States for a better life. During this time the Cuban government decided that instead of changing from the socialist model they would focus on areas such as Sugar production, Agriculture, Mining, Fishing and Biotechnology. Biotechnology being the most interesting and productive and in 2006 this sector had a 11% growth. Learning more about the complexities of the Cuban economic system and its relation to the United States was very interesting and really made our time there so much more impactful.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The problem with breaking off diplomatic relations is that it eliminates the possibility of future communication should the need arise, as well as diminishing the leverage both sides hold on each other. The US prefaces most of its demands on Cuba with the promise of easing the embargo upon successful completion of the task, even though previous overtures by Cuban governments have resulted in little economic or political opening. The US continues to trade with China and Vietnam, which have similar human/civil rights issues as Cuba, and the explanation for why this is not hypocritical was interesting but unfortunately we are not at liberty to discuss it.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
With infectious beats, eclectic voices and hard steps, Okantomi communicated with deities from the Yoruba religion and told stories of a man selling fruit and a woman washing clothes. The show represented many music genres made popular by Afro-Cuban artists such as Son and Cha Cha Cha. As a dancer myself I enjoy witnessing many genres of dance. At one point during the show, Okantomi requested the hand of the students and taught us dance moves. Since the reemerging, Afro-Cuban people have been able to retain their art-forms and represent it to the world with Afro Cuban artists. Okantomi has traveled all over Cuba and has even performed in the United States.
On Thursday June 9th we had a two hour discussion with Alfredo Prieto, a Cuban intellectual who had written extensively about the history of US-Cuban relations and had travelled widely within both the United States and Cuba.
To begin his talk, he explained that the relationship between the United States and Cuba had always been defined by asymmetry, contrary to a dominant US perception that a positive bilateral relationship had existed between the two countries. He explained the deep historical connections between the US and Cuba, that women from Havana sent George Washington money during the American Revolution, and that John Quincy Adams came up with the desire of Cuba's rapid transition from Spanish to American hands. He went on to explain the 20th century history of the unequal relationship, from the platt amendment, to the CIA's rapid response to the Cuban Revolution with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Most of this we already knew, so it was more relative to us when he began to elaborate on the current state of relations. He pointed out, with more than a touch of irony, that Cubans were even more up to date on American culture than Americans, given that pirated American movies and music arrived in Cuba before they were released in the United States. He acknowledged all the complexities of the embargo, citing the common understanding in Cuba that the continued US support for the embargo lay with the old generation of Cuban-Americans in Miami that had fled when the Castros took power.
We discussed the current thorns in the side of the bilateral relationship, like the Cuban 5, Cuban-American terrorists, and Alan Gross. He said that Alan Gross would most likely be freed one day, and that his detention was primarily a warning to the US not to try any more covert actions in Cuba.
Finally, he discussed his partnership with the Hampshire College in Cuba program, which was very interesting to me as I had a friend from Philadelphia who had participated in that program just a couple of months ago. It turned out we both knew her, which was pretty cool, and made me think again about just how connected the US and Cuba are, despite 50 years of officially existing in mutually exclusive isolation. Mr. Prieto brought an independent viewpoint to our studies in Cuba that underlined continuing difficulties in the governments of both countries, and really furthered our knowledge of the Cuban situation en actualidad. My thanks to both Alfredo Prieto, and the CGE in Cuba program.
Oberlin College '12
Friday, June 24, 2011
On June 8th, we visited the Brothers Ameijeiras Hospital, which you might recognize as the Cuban hospital featured in Michael Moore’s Sicko. Though the building was originally meant to house the national bank, the newly-victorious Revolutionary government altered construction plans, as Batista and his officials had stolen all the money from the treasury before fleeing to Miami. In 1982, the hospital officially opened. In the lobby, you can see photos of three of the five Ameijeiras brothers for whom the hospital was named. All five brothers played an important role in the uprising against Batista. According to Fidel’s hospital inauguration speech, one brother died in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, a second was murdered on his way to join the rebel forces in the Sierra Maestra, and a third was killed in Havana during an ambush by Batista’s forces. Of the two remaining brothers, one was imprisoned by the regime and the other was one of the 12 men who survived the Granma landing and went on to form the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra.
In Cuba, medicine is strongly linked to the values and images of the Revolution. Apart from the literacy campaign and reform of the education system, medicine was one of the areas on which the Revolutionary government focused most strongly. Cuba now has a fully subsidized medical system, meaning that all care is free (including abortion and plastic surgery). Cuban medical schools provide training, housing, and supplies free of charge to Cuban and low-income students from all over the world, including the United States. Though a developing country economically, Cuba now rivals developed countries in terms of infant mortality and maternal death rates, and the most common causes of death on the island are the same as in the US – the so called “developed-world pandemics” of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Cuban doctors travel around the world to assist in times of emergency or as long-term help through bilateral agreements, for example the Cuba-Venezuela pact in which Cuba exports doctors and imports subsidized oil. The US government rejected a Cuban offer to send doctors to Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina, claiming it was part of a pro-Castro propaganda campaign.
Despite the achievements of the Cuban health system, it still faces problems in maintaining a high level of care. Cuba cannot purchase equipment from the United States or from international companies in which the US investors have a financial stake, making the acquisition of adequate instruments difficult in this age of globalization. Though food and medical products are supposedly excepted from the embargo on trade with Cuba, a complicated licensing process is necessary for each purchase, essentially invalidating the exception. Cuba then either has to import medicines and equipment from China, Venezuela, or Europe, or import raw materials and produce its own.
Though the Cuban healthcare system clearly faces problems, such as varying hospital quality and long waits for non-urgent care, it seems to have succeeding in overcoming many of the failures of the US system. People do not go broke trying to pay for medical care. Compare that to this recent news story from North Carolina, about an unemployed man who robbed a bank of one dollar in order to secure a jail sentence that would guarantee him some level of health care.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
On Wednesday June 8, we visited El Museo de la Campaña de Alfabetización (the literacy campaign museum). At the museum we learned about the literacy campaign that began on January 1, 1961 and ended on December 22, 1961 and that eradicated illiteracy and made Cuba, as the museum claims, “the first country in the Americas to be free of illiteracy.”
For the campaign, tens of thousands of students volunteered to leave their home for a year to go into the more rural areas of Cuba and teach many of the inhabitants there how to read and write. These students were given training before along with some educational materials. Many teachers and workers also volunteered for the campaign; however, many of these volunteers were often sent into the more dangerous urban areas that needed teachers.
From the museum, one idea especially sticks out in my mind. Our tour guide kept talking about the thousands of students who volunteered and walking around the museum their faces were everywhere. However, also in the museum were the faces and letters from those people who were being taught during the literacy campaign. Walking around it was impossible not to see the real connections being formed
between people from all different backgrounds through a campaign that encompassed the entire country. Besides eradicating illiteracy in the country, it is said that the campaign helped to lessen racism in the
country as well as to lessen rural versus urban sentiments.
Learning about the effects of the campaign while making my own connections with new people in Cuba, I felt that power of meeting new people and trying to walk with them in their life for a little while. I do not know what I will do after studying abroad, but I know that whatever I do in my life, the one thing that will always stick out in my mind will be the people that I have met in my travels. Like the students of the literacy campaign, I want to affect some sort of change either in my country or in this world and I would preferably like to work for education reform. I do not know how I will go about this, but whatever I do I will never forget that the people that I work with will always be more important than any work I ever do.
Fordham University 12'
Monday, June 20, 2011
Broken handcuffs flew over paintings of liberated minds in the Casa del las Americas museum of art in Havana, Cuba. Prison bars bent into the shape of women lay next to caged birds flying free, as balloons symbolizing independent thoughts escaped their confines to fly free.
Given that Cuba, in relation to the Western liberal democratic model, is a dictatorship, all of this seemed strange. But, in relation to our visit to Cuba, it didn't. The museum was a bright, open place, established four months after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 in order to extend socio-cultural relations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Artists chatted next to a commemorative exhibition dedicated to the late Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti, while our group moved through successive rooms dedicated to surrealist and cubist pieces of art by famous Latin American painters.
But, the hall filled with the "liberation" art not only took on a bizarre feeling of propaganda, but symbolized, to me, all the contradictions of modern day Cuba. Artists from all over the world (with a shocking amount from Bosnia-Herzegovina) had submitted art that on the surface was entirely dedicated to the independence of thought and freedom of speech. Those things do not exist in Cuba.
I had to pinch myself all week to remember this. Cuba is a land of Mojitos, Salsa, Rumba, and Cha-Cha-Cha, far from the grey, depressing apartment blocks I had always associated in my mind with communism. An enormous amount of men were wearing mesh tank tops. Young gay people congregated on the Havana waterfront after dark, with no trouble from the seemingly non-existent police.
In 2009 Cuba ranked 173rd out of 178 countries for freedom of the press. A Freedom House survey ranked the country "Not Free," while in 2010 The Economist magazine ranked it 121st out of 167 countries for political freedom. Political parties besides the communist party are illegal, and public dissent may be punished as a criminal act.
So why are those handcuffs flying away? Cubans would prefer that I mentioned Cuba being 33rd in the world for low infant mortality rates, one place ahead of number 34, the United States. But, if you looked at their pre-revolution infant mortality rate, it would tie them for 169th place, with Swaziland. Rights in Cuba are of a social, not a political nature. To those who favor Western liberal democracies, this can feel abhorrent, but it is the way it has been in Cuba for over fifty years.
Cuba is fascinating for many reasons, but it truly stands out as the only country in the world with a socially benevolent dictatorship. This is the key to understanding why Cuba is not Syria: the government does more than oppress. This triumph of an anti-western model is the main reason Cuba still threatens the west, simply because it still exists.
Were the flying handcuffs hypocritical? Absolutely. Did they still represent freedom? Yes.
Oberlin College '12
It’s no secret that Cuba is going through very significant changes at this moment. Cuba, a country riding on the waves of more than 50 years of revolution, is facing the inevitable loss of two of the revolutions most important figures and keeper’s of revolutionary ideals, Fidel Castro and younger brother Raul Castro. The aging Castros' will soon be transitioning power to new hands for the first time in over 50 years and in that looms a degree of uncertainty among the Cuban people. Who will take their place?
Since the triumph of the revolution, Cuba's neighbor to the north, United States has been banging on Cuba’s door screaming for democratic change in the socialist country. After years of failed policies toward the country a mere 90 miles from Florida, it seems more important now than ever to change the approach to Cuba. On a recent visit to Cuba, we talked with Leonel Gonzalez, coordinator of international relations in the National Assembly (Cuba’s Congress) to spark dialogue about the importance of Cuba’s past and the role it will play in its future. Also, what does he see happening in the future with US-Cuba relations.
Leonel states that there are many false assumptions about Cuba. Cuba is not communist but a socialist country and does have democratic elections. The National Assembly is nominated and elected by the people. The National Assembly then chooses the country's president. A system that seems far away from a dictatorship, like the US backed Batista regime.
Cuba's history plays a huge part in its present says Gonzalez. You are unable to speak of revolution without mentioning Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, and the first independence from Spain. Nor can you speak of the volatile relationship between Cuba and the US without first referring to this history. After freeing themselves from Spain, Cuba became a protectorate of the United States. After the triumph of the revolution, the US refusal to recognize Cuba's true independence and the right to govern itself led to the embargo and the relationship it has with Cuba today. Cuba retaliated to the US by nationalizing their businesses and property in Cuba. A Gonzalez also says you are unable to mention the embargo without mentioning the social and economic warfare waged on the Cuban people. The US has intentionally made the Cuban people suffer to make them undermine the Castro government. Furthermore, it has isolated Cuba by cutting ties and pressuring other trading partners to follow suit.
Cuba has entered a crucial period in the revolution, They are currently a country in transition. For the last 50 years, their principal enemy has been one of the most powerful countries in the world with its several presidents plotting its down fall. With the election of Obama, who promised a new approach to the policies toward Cuba, the Cuban people believed the time was closer for the embargo to be lifted. While Obama has changed some things like reauthorizing family travel to Cuba and remittances, congress is responsible for getting rid of the embargo and in this moment it seems that the desire to lift it is not there.
Cuba has a long history fighting for its independence. The ideals of national hero, Jose Marti still ring in the ears of the Cuban people. What Castro did in the 1950’s was nothing new. Cuba does not object to sitting down with the U.S. The only objection it has is not being treated as an equal in the talks. Gonzalez says that the Cuba people could benefit tremendously from lifting the embargo and there are also benefits for the U.S but it is still unclear how that situation will be approached. Cuba does not object to foreign investment and would welcome U.S businesses. He admits, that the end of the embargo means U.S. tourism and businesses like McDonalds but with that he says, the Cuban people refuse to give up their dignity and once again subject themselves to being a U.S. colony. It is unsure what will happen after the end of the Castros’ reign. As far as the people know, there is no successor chosen to take their place. Cuba’s future as it always has been, will be fueled by its rich history. Fidel Castro stated his refusal to pay the price of the U.S. with the revolution, for that price would be too high. His own life would be a lesser fee to pay.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
First I am going to describe when and how the center evolved. The Martin Luther King Center came to be "during the era of MLK Jr., 1959 to 1968, Cuban church leaders, especially those who led congregations with members of Africcan descent, were inspired by the nonviolent social change strategies and movements in the United States. The desire for justice, equality, and reconciliation was sweeping the world" (para 2, Institue for Human Rights and Responsibilities, Inc.). Havana, Cuba was ready for a change and this change was what they were searching for.
After the Revolution of 1959, in the 1960s, pastors all over Cuba wanted to understand the movements and reprucussions of the Revloution. The Martin Luther King Center also incorporated a baptist church, which is right next to it. We got to have the chance to experience a service given by the church. From what I heard from classmates, it was a service that they would never forget. Relgion has a significant part and meaning to the lives of the people involved with the center. The community really benefits from the center.
The center offeres hospitality to those who need a place to stay, groups from outside the country, and a spiritual environment. We were given the awesome opportunity to not only stay in the center, but also hear about how impactful the center was for those in the community. It was a great start to our stay in Cuba.
The visit to the CUC (convertible Cuban pesos) store & the farmers' market (& the general economic situation in Cuba) on Sun., June 5
The first store we went to on that Sunday, was the CUC store. It was so different, yet interesting, to find out that there were two different curriences in Cuba. How was that possible? Well after I was told in Cuba and after (on my own) researching this a bit more I found the answer. From 1994 the CUC has been treated as the equivalent of a U.S. dollar, but was used rarely. Then in 2004 when the U.S. dollar was no longer being used in Cuba, the CUC became the currency everyone wanted. Now, today, the cuban peso is worth more than a U.S. dollar. It is kind of neat, but it made me and all of my classmates wonder just how exactly do Cubans servive, and this was after we found out about the 'regular pesos.' A regular peso is worth about 24 cents of a CUC. The average amount of money, that we were told in Cuba, that people make was about 15 CUC pesos per month and that is supposed to allow them to live. We got to take a look at the farmers market to see just how possible this was.
Once we entered the farmers market, we were astonished by how cheap things were, but they still did not seem cheap enough. An article I looked at, that could explain the situation even better, the situation I had the chance to witness that prices in the market were way too much for a Cuban citizen: Prices are high - with a head of garlic selling for 5 pesos, a pound of tomatoes for 6 pesos and pork for 35 pesos a pound (0.45 kg), or more than three day's average pay. But despite the hefty costs being paid out, the locals complain the selection on offer still leaves a lot to be desired: "The only things there are today are tomatoes and onions, that is all there is. People choose to go to these places because they are the only places that people can gather fresh fruits and vegetables other than what is already provided by the goverment like rice and beans. Some people would find this most ideal, to live in a world where the goverment takes care of the population, but is also controling practically the entire economy.
The economy in Cuba is one that many people, outside of Cuba, are not truly aware of. The people of the country are making the best with what they have. Although money is hard to come by and it seems that prices on food and other items are becoming more and more out of reach, people still seemed happy I also saw how much people longed for something different. My stay in Cuba taught me that money does not buy everything, but that the life and world we have made for ourselves does. Hopefully the government can allow it's people to live happier lives so that they can survive these conditions.
Friday, June 17, 2011
On Sunday June 5th we had the opportunity to go to El Museo de la Revolucion (The Museum of the Revolution). The Museum of the Revolution is located in the Old Havana section of Havana. We had a special tour by the daughter of one of the workers at the Martin Luther King Center who is studying English in university. The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace. There are even holes in the wall from bullets that were used in an assignation attempt on Dictator Fulgencio Batista by a group of students during the 1950s. After the revolution the building became the Museum of the Revolution and now the museum's exhibits are largely devoted to the period of the revolutionary war of the 1950s and to the post-1959 history. Behind the building there is old military equipment ranging from an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile of the type that shot down a U.S. Lockheed U-2 spy plane during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the engine of the U-2 airplane is displayed. There are also various vehicles and tanks used in the revolution displayed. Near the museum is located an SU-100, a Soviet tank destroyer. There is also a memorial to the Granma, the yacht that Fidel and other revolutionaries used on their voyage from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolution. It was very interesting to see the history of the Cuban revolution through the official Cuban government stance. There was also a reference to some past presidents of the United States. (From left to right: Ronald Regan, George Bush Senior, George Bush) All in all the Museum of the Revolution was a great way to learn more about one of the most important events in Cuban history and also a huge source of national pride for the country and its citizens.
Augsburg College '12