Flirting With Cuba

July 20, 2015, was a historic day for the United States and Cuba–” a new chapter,” says President Barack Obama; “a new era,” says Fidel Castro. The day was monumental because embassies were reestablished in both countries capitals. Cuba reopened the U.S. embassy in the heart of Havana, and America did the same; reinstating the same building, in Washington D.C., that served as the islands hub back in 1917, before relations were severed.

Curator_DC_CubanLegation
photo courtesy of CuratorOfShit. Did you know, during the “break-up”, Switzerland served as the mediator between the two counties (U.S. + Cuba); occupying this very building. Besides the point, but very fitting of our neutral Swiss.

Yet, as harmonious as these inaugurations sound the bigger picture is, of course, grander than the noise of our trusted politicians and the international news cycle.

Ceremonies of celebration and protest continue to commence in Havana, Washington and worldwide. The mending of a fifty year breakup is, well, tricky. And, quite frankly, the least of concern when the lens is re-focused on the ones who matter most: the Cuban civilians.

“Let’s liberate Cuban citizens, not enrich Castro brothers,” said The Miami Herald on June 27th, 2015. A simple statement that uncovers a dangerous government; the one that still persists amongst this elementary step towards progression. Densely equated to closure, Cuban civilians are not being liberated but instead will remain to be living under the socialist thumb of Fidel Castro, regardless of the historic day; regardless of the existence of embassies.

Many of us are tickled by the thought of booking a flight to that mysterious, lush island; the one that exudes culture and history. We quickly want to experience the “time capsule” location, which surely promises vibrant photos in the name of Instagram (#nofilter); anxiously wanting to dig our toes into the sands of the Caribbean before the authenticity of ‘cubanism’ is lost to mass tourism. But, just as swiftly, we lose sight of the jagged history that extends beyond positive political jargon, potential international trade and the tempting esthetics of beautiful Cuba. We forget to question what modifications will arrive so that Cuban civilians can begin to live a life of freedom.

I’ve compiled a short list of research; information that is relevant and concerning in respect to how Cubans live. And as the American/Cuban relationship ripens, these are the factors that should remain in the forefront of our minds.

HUMAN RIGHTS

Elba Eriba holdes an habano while she talks about her simple way of living in La Habana, Cuba on Wednesday September 17, 2014. (© Sophia Billikopf 2014)
Elba Eriba holdes an habano while she talks about her simple way of living in La Habana, Cuba on Wednesday September 17, 2014. (© Sophia Billikopf 2014)

Cuba is considerably behind in a number of areas, but the human rights department is especially bothersome. The treatment of prisoners was uncovered by Juan Carlos González Leiva’s testimonial of torture; race relations are disgustingly problematic; homosexuals are mistreated and only as of recent has a community of activists developed, in large part welcomed and led by the gay daughter of President Raul Castro; health care is lacking and incredibly disturbing as consent, rights to information and privacy are non existent, and women’s rights are surprisingly mediocre; strides have been made towards equality and opportunity since Raul Castro’s takeover.

“Day and night, the screams of tormented women in panic and desperation who cry for God’s mercy fall upon the deaf ears of prison authorities. They are confined to narrow cells with no sunlight called “drawers” that have cement beds, a hole on the ground for their bodily needs, and are infested with a multitude of rodents, roaches, and other insects…. In these “drawers” the women remain weeks and months. When they scream in terror due to the darkness (blackouts are common) and the heat, they are injected sedatives that keep them half-drugged”

-Carlos González Leiva

The laundry list goes on far too long as basic human rights and needs have been stripped from the general public of Cuba for decades. According to Carrie Hamilton, author of Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics and Memory, nonverbal communication (read: silence) has increasingly become established as an important and expected method of coping. Hamilton believes that what is left unsaid often speaks louder than the audible alternative, but requires much more digging. Topics of taboo are in many instances left unsaid because they are the direct results of bigger issues and crises’ within they system, including: censorship, shortages and rationing, domestic abuse, AIDS, etc.

EDUCATION

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photo courtesy of classicjourneys.com

One happening that excited many when the American-Cuban relationship was said to be moving towards “normalization” was a common interest in mingling academically. Florida International University, in Miami, has one of the strongest programs in Cuban Studies and the concernment to diversify students is high. Though, President Mark Rosenberg isn’t naive to know that their ultimate goal: building campuses on the island, is a long way off.

Currently, education is mighty valued in Cuba but the payoff is limited when a socialist regime offers little opportunity. In 1961, Fidel Castro enlisted a Literacy Campaign in which the islands rate of illiteracy dropped from 23.6 to 3.9 percent. Impressive, but worrisome when resources are controlled and heavy in Marxism. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the Cuban curriculum was expanded to include “materials from other nations”. And most Cubans do not have unlimited access to the World Wide Web, as it is a luxury found in the Internet cafes which were just introduced within the last two years.

Google and Twitter, as reported by the New York Times, have approached the Castro government, in the last year, to allow access and “increase connectivity”; a development that would benefit Cubans exposure and ability to share information, internationally and for educational purposes. It would be wise for the U.S. and Cuba to divvy out biomedical discoveries, as Cuba has recently surfaced a vaccine that could “target the protein that enables lung cancer to grow.” It would be wise for the U.S. to extend a branch so that academics could flourish in both areas.

 ECONOMY

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photo courtesy of Newsweek.

From an economic standpoint, former US Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, demands that the U.S. needs to do more during the initial stages of reintegration. For decades, Cuba has “not known the benefits of capital investment, low interest rates, technical assistance, things that can have a significant impact on the lives of Cubans,” and Gutierrez is stern in proposing the U.S. assists. But, it was only a matter of moments until Fidel Castro demanded money; “many millions of dollars” in an open letter to the United States for damages the island endured during the embargo.

Although brother Raul Castro has been in power since 2006, the open letter leads many to believe that the Castro regime remains to be money hungry and negligent as ever towards the Cuban peoples’ wellbeing. Keep in mind that the last we checked, Forbes in 2006 pinned the Castro wealth to be an alarming $900 million; while the rest of the island is in shambles and living on ration booklets. The economy won’t strengthen until the wealth is re-distributed in a sustainable manner.

Although a future summer vacation, bubbling in the mind, is nice way to spend our time, it is more meaningful to keep the civilians we may be laying our towels next to, on the beach of Varadero, in mind. What are they getting out of this deal? The Cuban economy may begin to boom, but where is that money going and how is it being redistributed? Will more opportunity (jobs) begin to emerge?


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As exciting as it is for the world to have a glimmer of hope that change is coming to end the multi-faceted misfortunes that make every day life so tough for Cubans, we must not let the media allow us to think simply. The road ahead will be long, and the people of Cuba require immediate attention.

What needs to be heard are the voices of Cuban exiles, living off the island who scream the horror and oppression their families endured before, during and after Fidel Castro’s takeover. What needs to be heard are the subtle voices, now appearing more than ever on the Web and traveling to us from Cuba in blog, social media and editorial form. What needs to be prioritized is the well being of Cuban civilians who have suffered far too long.

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