How I spent my spring vacation

By the

March 15, 2001

The first thing you notice about Cuba is the color.
Thick green leaves shade pink colonial buildings, which stand out against a clear blue sky. Old red Chevrolets motor past tiny, fenced-off orange houses, and the remarkable amount of concrete brown fades away as other colors become brighter and brighter.

In the country, green and yellow dominate. At the beach, the water is a fuller blue than the sky that meets it in the distance. For a place of such antiquity, the beauty never ends. But this judgement becomes just a superficial one once you take a closer look; the beauty fades into just a pleasant setting for a disturbing realization.

I went to Cuba over Spring Break, pursuing Hemingway and Buena Vista Social Club, but the immediate realism of the country’s poverty served as a reminder that the mythical days of pre-revolution Cuba were only a tiny chapter of a greater story. The group that I traveled with, Witness for Peace, is a non-profit organization dealing with development issues in Latin America. For this trip, the purpose was to study the effects of United States policy towards Cuba, namely the embargo and its impact on the people of the island.
The greatest insight I left with is that so much of what we are told about Cuba is wrong. Socialism is not evil. Cubans do not hate Americans. It is not tyrannical. There is freedom of religion. Cuban health care is some of the best in the world. Nearly everybody has a high school education, and their university system is better than that of the United States in many ways.

In fact, there are many good things about Cuba, and some of those are due to the embargo itself (which Cubans legitmately refer to as “el bloqueo”?”the blockade”). For one, there is a refreshing lack of consumer culture in the country. Where you would expect to see a McDonald’s ad on a billboard, you look at a revolutionary slogan such as “Hasta la victoria siempre” or “Anti-imperialistas.” People play baseball for baseball’s sake, not for million-dollar contracts. Cubans dance and drink to pass the time; they don’t play Nintendo or watch “Friends.” They are happy and reliant on one another. It’s a pure humanism that is so, so gorgeous.

This is not to say, however, that Cubans are ideal socialists, eschewing money for Ch?’s idealism. They want money, too; not because socialism has failed or because Castro is some kind of hording despot. It’s because they are poor, and U.S. policy has much to do with that poverty. In 1992, New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli’s Cuban Democracy Act eliminated 70 percent of food and medicine trade to Cuba. The United States finances food and medicine trade to China, North Korea, Libya, Iran and Sudan, yet the communist non-threat of Cuba is left to fend for itself. There may be human rights violations in Cuba, but the pain caused by the United States to 11 million Cubans is a greater evil.

Attaching a human face to these issues has made them so much easier to understand. I went to a baseball game in Havana where players in the dugout were willing to sell Americans the jerseys off their backs for cash. Prostitution is rampant, and Cuba has thus become a destination for those in the global sex trade. Americans and their dollar bills are let into stores at all hours, while Cubans are left outside in spite of their needs.

Cuba needs the United States, both for investment and for the physical dollar bills that flow through the tourism industry. But by refusing to trade with Cuba and forbidding Americans to travel there, they are putting a stranglehold on the people, not on Castro. Fidel will stay in power even if the people are suffering, and their capacity to revolt is zero, as evidenced by?oh yeah?Castro’s 42 years of stability.
Cuba is cornered as the final outpost of socialism, an economic model that neither works nor remains a “threat” in this hemisphere. So, the government there is stubborn as well, decrying the American imperialists and hoping to grind the image of coke-snorting, gun-toting U.S.A. into the minds of Cuban youth.

But, as one Cuban doctor told our group, “We have nothing against Americans; this is a war between the governments.” They really do like us, and we really do like them. It’s absurd to keep punishing these people who have so much to offer, culturally and economically.

The embargo will not stop Castro and it will not stop socialism.

Ending the embargo will undoubtedly bring globalization into this tiny contained island, where not one McDonald’s or Starbucks can be found. People in Cuba will seek the dollar just as fast as you and I do, and that will be the downfall of “evil socialism.” This is a sad result of lifting the embargo, but one that needs to be done. There is so much love and beauty and feeling and vibrance in Cuba, and killing those things would be nearly as painful as the poverty itself. But these people need help.

By lifting the embargo, I fear that all the colors will fade into the past, and colonial facades will be replaced by modern office buildings. The utopian vision of Ch? and Fidel will unfortunately be lost forever, and along with it will pass the ‘57 Chevys and a peaceful Malecon. But we can either starve Cubans to death or help them live on into the next century, and there is only one answer: Romper al bloqueo contra Cuba.

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