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Cuba and the US: A Historical Relationship

Sugar cane has played a prominent historical role in US - Cuba relations

Sugar cane has played a prominent historical role in US – Cuba relations photo by Isaac Holeman.


If you’ve read my recent posts on Cuba, some of you might think I’ve been “going easy” on Cuba, that I always give this politically, ideologically charged nation the benefit of the doubt. I do not. I am, however, very intent that social critique be productive. It’s worse than useless to harangue Cuba (or anything) without a specific attention to the underlying structures and trajectories that have shaped its characteristics and will determine whether, when, and how these characteristics change.

Many Cubans are quite close minded politically. Censorship happens. No one is being disappeared like in Guatemala, but the press sucks and ideological advertisements are ubiquitous. I want to write a few posts about this, but it is so important to first examine Cuba’s troubled relationship with the U.S.

The Castro led revolution that began in the 1950’s is the third of Cuba’s revolutions that the US has worked to undermine in order to protects its own economic-ideological interests. The first two times we were successful in exercising ownership over the “unruly” Cuban people. This time has been more complicated.

U.S. [economic] sanctions challenged Cuba precisely on the grounds that the leadership was best prepared to defend: the ideal of nation, free and soverign – a formulation with antecedents early in the nineteenth century and the defense of which the Cuban leadership claimed the historical mandate to uphold. U.S. policy challenged the Cuban revolution at its most credible point and the most defensible position. Sanctions were perceived as one more maneuver to exact Cuban acquiescence to U.S. hegemony, another attempt to remove a government in Cuba dedicated to the defense of patria (homeland & heritage), one more way to punish the people of Cuba for having dared to aspire to national sovereignty…

Sanctions also contributed to reduce space for dialogue and debate inside Cuba. If indeed the survival of the nation was at stake, what mattered most was unanimity of purpose and an unyielding course of action, neither of which admitted easily internal discord and disagreement…

U.S. pressure could not but have acted to impede the process of political change inside Cuba. The Cuban willingness to pursue reforms – and the signals were mixed – could not have easily occurred in an environment in which the central preoccupation of national leadership was framed in terms of national security (remind anyone of executive abuses of civil liberties in the name of the war on terror?). On the other hand, it is possible to contemplate that these developments too were a desired outcome, for the U.S. did not seek a government reformed but a government removed.”

Perhaps the human rights advocate Miriam Leiva put it best “The irony of the situation is this: extremism in Miami (epicenter of the anti- Cuban Socialism lobby) and extremism in the White House ultimately serve to fuel extremism in Havana.” All quotes from Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 3rd edition, pages 316, 317, and 329.

Vale la Pena: It’s Worth It

a distraught school boy in Camaguy by Isaac Holeman.


My academic program here in Cuba revolves around learning Spanish, exploring Cuban culture academically and as a participant, and pursuing an independent photojournalism project. I’ve chosen Cuban Health Care as the subject of my journalism project. Just a few days ago, I was interviewing a prominent Cuban actress and her words struck such a chord with me that I’d like to share them with you.

“I want to tell you a personal story. I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in 1992; I had an operation, they did chemotherapy and gave me a medicine called tamoxicin. 1992 was in the Special Period, during which we had nothing. I don’t know why they call it the “Special Period”. “Special” usually means wonderful. But no, it was horrible. Horrible. You guys don’t know the meaning of “nothing”. Sometimes we ate just white rice with oil. And my husband, who is North American, never called his mother to tell her “Mom, we have no money, we don’t have shoes.” Never. He said, “I chose to live here and my problems are my own.” So in ’92 the food ration was minimal.

When they operated on me, all of my coworkers gave me their rationed fish, their rationed chicken- protein so that I could get better. This is worth it. This is worth so much more than money. And I got all of my medical care for free. When I was in the US I had a friend who had terrible cancer and the chemotherapy cost her so much she couldn’t pay for it. The tamoxicin was costing her $499 a month. I took it for ten years for free. I have never had to pay a cent. And now they have me on a drug that costs $800 a month and I couldn’t live without it. So of course there are things that are worth it. There are good things that are worth fighting for.
Nobody has to say “I’m going to die because I can’t pay.” How awful for someone to say “I won’t get treatment because I can’t pay.”And that the US, such a powerful country, doesn’t have a medical system that can take care of the health of its people, well that’s terrible, no?

I know that Cuba has a lot of problems. Tons. I never, ever said that Cuba is perfect. I’m not religious. I don’t believe in perfection. I believe that all human beings have to fight to make life better. This I believe in. And I believe that people are good. And you can’t convince me of the opposite.

I believe that Cuba has achieved a crucial social interaction. We help each other out- everyone. We share, we lend each other clothes. I don’t have much. But if someone needs something I’ll give them everything I have. We have learned in the way to be more human I believe. We know that we have to help everyone and not just ourselves. I think that his has helped Cuba a lot. This is the truth. We have learned that people are different for different reasons, not for racial reasons or religious or sexual. We are more than just that. And these are values that I hope we don’t lose to materialism, this is the spiritual material that we have to fight to maintain. These are so much more important than material values. And I understand material values. I love things, I love them. And I think it’s pretty important to have something to eat, too. But you have to fight more for those spiritual things- the things you believe in.”

Health care in Cuba is far from perfect. The whole country is so poor that they don’t always have money to buy the more expensive drugs, and tourists do get preferential treatment. At the end of the day, however, the structure of their health system says that they have figured out that the people – every last one of them – are the most valuable part of their society. Life in Cuba is imperfect, like life in the US is imperfect, but there are so many things worth fighting for. For example, lets all fight to build a society where “nobody has to say ‘I’m going to die because I can’t pay.’”

Exploring Authencity, or Choosing not to

Two Strangers on the Malecon by Isaac Holeman.

My Mom once told me about a short story written by a couple that had been budget traveling around Cuba and had some minor fiasco on the street. I think one of of their bag’s broke and some important papers flew into the wind and onto the street. A nice Cuban couple helped them pick up their things, struck up a friendly conversation, and eventually invited them to come to their home for dinner a few days later. After a wonderful dinner and some very interesting conversation, the Cuban couple asked if they traveling couple might help pay for the dinner, Cubans don’t have much money they said. This seemed reasonable, except that the price the Cubans were asking was significantly more than a reasonable restaurant would have charged for the fare. This seemed a little bizarre and unfair to the travelers, but they felt indebted for the hospitality they had received, and it was clear that despite their tight traveling budget, they certainly had more worldly goods to call their own than this Cuban family. They paid what the Cubans asked for the food.

Later, after more witty and exotic conversation, the Cubans began repeatedly mentioning things that other foreigner friends had gifted to them. A stereo from a Canadian family, a TV from England, a load of school supplies for their darling child. Before long it was clear that this traveling couple was also being asked to give great gifts. There was never any real fear involved, not a thought of danger. Just guilt, how foul is that? These Cubans were just being really friendly and then rubbing it in that respective social/economic systems leave people with drastically different access to commodities, often with place of birth being the greatest distinguishing characteristic of the individuals involved. How rude of them to ask for all kinds of things they don’t need, just because they were charismatic enough to very quickly become friends with people who do have those things. Or, how right, perhaps. How is it that people like me develop such a great sense of ownership that we feel indignant when others ask that we, of our own will and expense, put them on an equal playground.

I say people like me because I speak from experience, sort of, maybe. The other night coming home from dinner, one of our friends was waylaid by the classically Cuban conversation starter “wha cantri you fram?” Their child was breathtakingly cute, dancing wildly to the regatton blasting in the distance. The couple were so engaging, we talked politics, religion, and music there on the street while the ladies from our group danced, chased, and hugged their little girl. They also talked about foreigner friends, and ended up showing us the shirt and backpack their Canadian friends had bought for their daughter. I got a bad vibe early and remembered the story above, but my friends were enamored. Before we left they had invited us all for dinner and dancing in their home, told us to bring as many people as we could. They would call to remind us and then would pick us up at the hotel, even though they lived so far away they would need to take hours of bus rides to get to our hotel. When they called to remind us, my friend sensed something very creepy and as of about half an hour ago, we decided not to go have dinner with them. I was sort of expecting to get scammed, but the word scam really doesn’t describe the sick twistyness of it. I still wanted to go, even if to repeat the heinously awkward circumstances of the other traveling couple. Anyhow, I admit relief at not having to risk saying no, or yes, to friends.

ps For those of you who aren’t very familiar with Cuban culture, this set of experiences is no more representative of all Cubans than thieves, pranksters, and neoliberals are representative of all US residents.

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