During our journey to Cuba in 2001, we were fortunate enough to get some outstanding shots of the local population. I share them with you here now. (Left click on each photo to make it larger). We asked each person their permission to be phutographed and tipped them $1 for the privilege. This first guy was a happy-go-lucky fellow we met in a small shopping mall in the El Vedado district, almost to Miramar (see map in part I). The man at top left, who looked like he had been through two world wars, we saw standing in a doorway, surrounded by paintings, in Habana Vieja. The old woman enjoying a cigar at top right we caught in the same area, nearby. Men and women alike enjoy fine Cuban cigars. The two girls struck a pose for us further into Habana Vieja. Spandex is very prevalent throughout Cuba. The man below left was a newspaper salesman we caught up with in the government district near Nuevo Habana. Next to him was an old woman we saw in Habana Vieja. Nrxt to her was a saintly lady we encountered in El Vedado. At bottom right was a happy young lady being held by her mom in Habana Vieja. To their left, very near the government district, we caught that lady enjoying her stogie. As I have taken the liberty of adding a few additional photos to the previous segments of my Cuba series, you may also wish to revisit the first four segments again.
At the conclusion of this piece, I will present my opinions on Cuba, its people, its government, and what I hope for her future.
I would describe none of these people as feeling hopelessly oppressed, or desperately itching to leave their homeland, although a number of Cubans DO feel that way. For, while the Cuban Revolution has indeed cost them their freedom, the Castro government has done more to benefit the country than all of its neglectful predecessors, and for more of the population, too. For this reason I believe the people, most of them anyway, have come to accept life as it is. It seemed to us that the Cuban spirit was too lively to be caught in continual despair. The two families we stayed with did not display any noticeable discontent, or exhibit fear in having us stay in their dwellings. Both simply let us be and went about their business in a normal way. While their living conditions were modest, both had working 19" color TVs, and both had medium-level boom boxes, and each seemed content with what they had. They unsparingly offered us food and drink, which we joined them in on occasion.
In a tobacco shop, we spoke with a woman who had good command of English. She mentioned that everyone we saw on the street was wearing a "false face." We didn't press her for an explanation, but she did mention she had applied for an exit visa for herself and her daughter, so perhaps she was speaking mainly for herself. For most of the people we encountered were basically rather happy-go-lucky and seemingly content overall, although nobody would be totally content with product shortages being a fairly common occurrence. Our trade embargo against Cuba, the major cause of these shortages, began in 1960, after Cuba had nationalized some U.S. companies. It has been a total and complete embargo ever since, covering all types of products. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla has described it as an "economic, commercial, and financial siege" that has now entered its sixth decade. No such embargo exists between Canada, Britain, Germany, Japan, or any other major European or Asian power and Cuba, and no one else's citizens are restricted from either going there or spending money there. A report prepared for the UN General Assembly puts the cost of this embargo at US $750 BILLION, approximately 7 times Cuba's annual GDP. In other words, our embargo has cost Cuba 7 years of development. But has it worked? Has it convinced the Cuban government to change its ways? Absolutely not: all it has done is hurt the Cuban people. Needlessly.
China, the now vitally important U,S, trading partner and major supplier, still engages in major human rights violations among its own people. Press censorship is very tight there. Yet we ended our embargo against them nearly 40 years ago. There are infinitely more political prisoners today in China than there are in Cuba. So why do we continue to pick on Cuba for that reason? 36+ years ago, we were at war with Vietnam, and not only did they kill many thousands of our soldiers, they have certainly not granted their people the type of freedom we enjoy since the North took over the entire country in 1975. Yet we trade with them, but not with Cuba. We trade freely with Egypt, even provide them with billions in foreign aid, even though it is ruled by iron-fisted dictator Hosni Mubarak who has been guilty of many atrocities over a 29 year span, but we still refuse to trade with our next door neighbor Cuba. It is a most unfair paradox to keep Cuba out of our trading circle while we actively engage in trade with other repressive dictatorships across the globe. Why do we continue this insanity and double standard when none of the rest of the world does the same?
To be sure, the Castro government has been guilty of many deplorable human rights offenses. There have been executions of political opponents, and jailings without due process (SOUND FAMILIAR?). Press censorship is a way of life, and I abhor all of that. But because Cuba does not hold a strategic trump card for us the way China or Egypt do, it is unfairly being singled out for punishment. I, for one, say it is time for a more pragmatic approach.
In many ways, our embargo has backfired on us. Right off the bat, it pushed Cuba smack dab into the broad, outstretched arms of the old Soviet Union and away from us. Overreactions on both sides almost led to nuclear war in 1962 during the Cuban mMssile Crisis. But those days are long gone. Cuba hasn't had offensive missiles pointed at us for nearly 50 years, and gone are the days when Cuba was actively engaged in trying to export revolution to other Latin American countries by sending revolutionaries and soldiers. Countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and even Brazil have instead instituted their own revolutions in recent years, mainly due to exploitation and benign neglect by the U.S. or the tin-horn dictators we once supported. That is a fact of life. Cuba didn't cause the leftward shift of a number of Central and Latin American governments: WE did! Our penchant for supporting any pro-American government so long as it was stable and anti-Communist, no matter how repressive it was to its own citizens, is the reason we have lost so much ground in that region. Our entire history of dominating the area through military intervention and by other means is full of glaring mistakes: Chile in 1973, and El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s are the most current examples. Therefore, the days for punishing Cuba should come to a screeching halt. We simply must start to treat our southern neighbors as just that: fully independent neighbors who are not our possessions.
The main reason we persist in this folly of punishing Cuba is due to the strong influence of the free-Cuba lobby. Composed mainly of refugees and their families who fled Cuba just after the first days of the revolution, many of whom were wealthy and/or large landowners, they see the Castro regime as all evil and one which must be toppled so they can return home and once more establish control for themselves. While I share their desire for fair, open elections, the end of press censorship, and greater civil rights for Cuba's citizens, such things do not occur merely because we have pointed a gun at a foreign government and told them to toe the line or else. Also, these well-to-do landowners did very little before 1959 to really benefit the country. They catered to American gangsters and exploited Cuban workers to make a quick buck, just as our own corporations are now trying to do to us here in America right now. Also, few governments in history have been all good or all bad, and that is especially true of the Castro government. We were certainly not good to have engaged in torture or to have practiced rendition over the past decade! Even Hitler's Nazi regime was not completely bad: it lifted Germany out of the Great Depression with massive government spending and built the first modern freeway system in Europe, the Autobahn, for heaven's sake. In terms of exactly what the Castro government has accomplished during its tenure, consider these facts:
1). It turned a population that was 23% illiterate in 1959 into one with ONLY 4% ILLITERACY IN ONLY TWO YEARS' TIME! Today, UN estimates place this figure at 6.8%, but that is still evidence of remarkable progress! Education is FREE from kindergarten all the way up through a doctorate level in college (to those whose grades qualify them for it).
2). It has now the second highest number of doctors per capita of any nation on earth (we are far behind at no. 52), and health care for ALL is universal and FREE, just as it should be here! At the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the country had 6,000 doctors, of which 3,000 left right after it occurred. Now there are over 64,000 doctors providing medical services all throughout the island. Cuba currently has three times as many doctors in the Third World as the World Health Organization! She also trains hundreds of medical students from the Caribbean and other developing countries free of charge, a most unselfish gesture! Today, at 75 years, the Cubans have achieved the longest life expectancy, and the lowest death rate among every 1,000 live births (7.1) in all of Latin America, AND THEY HAVE DONE SO IN SPITE OF OUR CRIPPLING EMBARGO WHICH SEVERELY LIMITS AVAILABILITY OF MEDICAL SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT! Imagine what they could accomplish if they were freed from that embargo!
3). All discrimination based on race, gender, and class inequality has been greatly reduced. I saw whites, mulattoes, and blacks mingling freely with one another, without the slightest hint of racism.
Our beazen attempt to blackmail Cuba into adopting an economy just like ours, with so-called "free" markets and an ever-expanding-in-wealth yet ever-shrinking ultra-rich elite, has been an abject failure. It has only strengthened Cuban resolve to resist, and has provided other developing nations with proof that the "American way" is NOT the only way to economic development! No other nation on earth punishes Cuba like we do, and this foolish course of action MUST end!
I do NOT support Cuba's excesses in the field of human rights. I do NOT support its press censorship. I am NOT suggesting that we coddle a dictatorship, or that their way of doing things is a paradise on earth. What I AM suggesting, though, is that we take the first step in thawing a very old and now very cold relationship. Just as one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, if we show the Cuban government we are sincere and won't dictate terms to them, they will invariably feel less threatened by their big neighbor to the north and might well begin to slowly reform themselves ON THEIR OWN. We could, and SHOULD, begin this thawing out process with cultural exchanges centered around, say, Cuban baseball or Cuban jazz music. Then, the Presidents of each country should hold a summit and lay the groundwork for eventual full diplomatic relations to be restored. Travel restrictions between each country should end. At the very least, it is worth a try, especially because an effort like this has never really been made!
This, then, concludes my reminiscences of an unforgettable trip I made to Cuba 10 years ago. I sincerely hope that, within another 10 years, I shall be able to return there, LEGALLY, and note with great satisfaction that progress has been made to amend the excesses found in BOTH of our systems!
VIVA A NEW AND FULLY INDEPENDENT CUBA!!!