Cuba: Another Perspective from the USA

Recently Cuba’s streets filled with compatriots protesting the government and the shortages of food and healthcare. There were others on the streets (including Cuba’s President Diaz-Canal) clamoring for the right of Cuba to be independent of U.S. domination. The situation on this tiny island of 11 million people (approximate number of undocumented immigrants currently in the USA) is very hard for us to understand.

Over the past 22 years, I have traveled 12 times to Cuba, often with faculty and students from Berea College. On each visit, I understand a little more about this unique country. For example, on my first visit to attend a women’s studies conference at the University of Havana, I learned that before the fall of the Soviet Union, there were no shortages of any kind. People had food, shelter, healthcare, transportation, music and sports. Russia filled the material void after the United States signed the embargo against Cuba. When we stopped trading with Cuba sixty years ago, their world class cigars became contraband in our country; we were not allowed to travel there unless we were journalists, artists or researchers like myself. Under the charismatic leadership of Fidel Castro, Cuba maintained its dignity as a country who begged to differ with the United States about its social and economic lifestyle.

In 1989, when the Soviet Union dissolved, Cubans had to figure out how to live without Russia’s generous subsidy, particularly to its sugar industry. Bicycles became the mode of transportation. Cubans named these years “the special period.” I remember hearing a colleague say that Cuba could survive the loss of support from the Soviet Union because people were well educated; they were smart enough to become innovative. Professionals, including university professors, returned to their rural roots and started inventing machines to improve agriculture and transportation. Cuba was reliant (like the USA) on petroleum products for its agricultural system. Immediately, Cubans began to regenerate their soils to make them ready for organic plantings that did not require imports of fertilizers and pesticides. Urban gardens sprang up all over the country. In fact, Cuba was lauded as a world leader in “greening the environment.” I will never forget the joy of eating a papaya without the contaminants of agrochemicals.

Most Americans are unaware that Cuba is a medical superpower. Citizens there enjoy free concierge health coverage because doctors live in their neighborhoods and attend to them day and night. Cuba has so many doctors it can send them to other countries that are short of medical personnel. In fact, medical service is the major export of the Cuban economy. The quality of healthcare in Cuba rivals that of the United States even though medical supplies are scarce. My own daughter arrived in Cuba a year ago with a perforated appendix. She received the same treatment (laparoscopic surgery) that she would have received in Connecticut. Most of us have no idea that Cuba has developed multiple effective vaccines for Covid. Unfortunately, Cuba lacks syringes to administer the vaccine to its population. What if we were not able to import syringes to vaccinate our own population? Would we take to the streets too?

These days life is grim once again in Cuba. For the past decade and more, Cuba has enjoyed a gradual opening of its economy to various forms of entrepreneurial activities. Cooperatives and privately owned businesses flourished during the recent golden age of tourism. But President Trump’s policies (to date not reversed by the Biden administration) changed all of that. Like the fall of the Soviet Union, the advent of Covid has further crippled the economy—made all the harder by sanctions imposed by the United States. Recently there was a large outpouring of citizens in much the same way as we Americans come out to protest when we are unhappy. Unfortunately, for Cuba, there are multiple forces, including President Biden, bearing down on this country in this difficult time.  We have little idea what this might be like for Cubans. The closest we come to this kind of feeling is 9/11 when outsiders took down the twin towers in New York.

Cuba has a different social agenda from our own. Some would say that its socialist system puts people before profits. This means that nobody is left behind. Sound familiar? We have used these words to describe our own social safety net in the United States. But there is one important difference. For sixty years, our government has refused to trade with Cuba and exacts punishment on other countries who want to do business with Cuba. It has been our explicit policy “to deny money and supplies to Cuba…to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government” (U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, 1960). I don’t think we as Americans have a category for the kind of hardship Cuba continues to endure because the United States does not like its economic structure. We find ourselves offended when the Cuban government shuts down the internet to the U.S. voices who are undermining the country’s well-being. If we had a better understanding of Cuba’s relationship to the United States, we would be slow to criticize the government’s efforts to protect its citizens from U.S. efforts to undermine its sovereignty.

One way that we can exercise our privilege as Americans is to engage in actions that help our Cuban neighbors. Bullying Cuba into changing its economic system is not one of them. The best way to support the Cuban people is to end the unproductive embargo. Every year the United Nations votes overwhelmingly to demand an end to the embargo. This summer the USA and Israel were the only countries to vote against it. We can exercise our own human rights by supporting our elected officials to get behind legislation to end the embargo. Currently Senator Bernie Sanders and other congressional members are leading the way. Why don’t we employ our human right to free speech and get on board with the rest of the world to lift the suffering we are causing to our neighbors 90 miles south of Florida.

(By Peggy Rivage-Seul: Peggy Rivage-Seul is Professor of Women’s Studies, Coordinator for the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and Director of the Women in Public Service Project at Berea College)

(Photo credit: author)