I usually reserve my blog for articles that are meticulously written and corroborated by less anecdotal evidence, and more textual evidence. However, given my hectic schedule, I wanted to share my immediate response to Fidel Castro’s death that I published earlier today on Facebook. When I have more time, I will publish a more comprehensive article.
Like many of my Facebook friends reacting to Fidel Castro’s death, I also have some opinions I would like to share, some of which are controversial.
As many of you know, I studied at the University of Havana in 2015, and was lucky enough to be there to witness the renewal of US-Cuba diplomatic relations on my final day in Cuba. Before traveling to the island nation, I was familiar with negative US sentiments towards Cuba and expected the worst upon my arrival. However, I was surprised by what I saw.
I will not deny that I lived a privileged life during the four months I spent in Cuba. All 60 Americans studying in Cuba resided in Vedado, Havana, just a 20-30 minute walk from the university in a neighborhood where the buildings showed signs of neglect, but remnants of their prior wealth and glory were still visible.
Living in Cuba, however, I was able to meet Cubans, and have honest conversations with them ranging from race relations to freedoms to political sentiments. My movement was also unrestricted, and I spent my free time walking for hours throughout Havana, exploring the urban landscape. I also took a public health course, and was able to tour a renal treatment facility in a public hospital.
I learned the following:
1) Cubans are highly educated. Many go to college. Yes, it is true that you must pledge allegiance to the revolutionary party to gain admission, but this rule isn’t widely enforced. I met several Cubans who spoke several languages, and were eager to engage in philosophical discourse. The discouraging bit: the unemployment rate is very high in Cuba, and many well-educated, highly-qualified people were unable to find work.
2) Cuba has managed to provide some of the best health care in the world, despite its limited resources following the US embargo. It has primary health care facilities on nearly every other block, and its pharmacies offer medication at a symbolic price of just a few cents. Rolling black outs make it difficult to preform routine check ups, and cancer treatment is still underdeveloped. However, Cubans are relatively healthy in relation to their GDP/capita. As my public health professor used to say, “Cuba is a third world country that suffers from first-world diseases.”
3) Cuba prides itself on providing humanitarian aid across the world. During the Angolan civil war, Cuba deployed school teachers and doctors (and, yes, military relief). During Hurricane Katrina, Cuba offered medical aid to New Orleans through its Henry Reeve Brigade, but the United States rejected its offer. During the ebola crisis in 2015, Cuba was one of the first countries to send thousands of doctors, nurses, and researchers to Africa.
It is true that Cuban physicians are paid Cuban salaries while on mission (approx. $30/month). This is an undeniably exploitative practice, but it is also important to understand why Cubans decide to become doctors in the first place. To be a doctor in Cuba is to be a revolutionary–it is rooted in socialist ideology. It is considered the maximum service you can provide to your country.
4) Cuba does have state-controlled press. Its newspaper, radio, and television networks are run by the government. The TV does not play advertisements during commercial breaks, but propaganda that often times centers around public health and equality campaigns. The right to assembly is also non-existent; it can land you in jail. High-speed internet in homes was illegal, and internet access in general was limited to two hotels in Havana that charged exorbitant prices for one hour of service. I’ve heard things are luckily changing. Despite these limitations, people were extraordinarily willing to talk privately about their opinions, and associate with foreigners.
I happened to live in Cuba in 2015, years after Raúl Castro took the mantle of presidency from his brother. Raúl Castro differed from his brother in that he supported the growth of small businesses, and was willing to open the economy to outside forces. This might also cloud my judgement of Cuba. The Cuba I witnessed was one that made huge strides in human rights regarding health care and education, but still had long ways to go in terms of achieving other freedoms Americans cherish.
Honestly, though, Americans have freedom to speech, assembly, and press, but many Americans–especially low-income Americans and racial minorities–are excluded from accessing basic health care and high-quality education. Even in the US, people are politically marginalized and precluded from attaining certain rights and freedoms the government claims to provide universally (btw health care is not a human right in the US).
My last thought on the topic: I absolutely acknowledge the criticisms many people have against Cuba–and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in particular–but I urge anyone reading this to take a more critical stance and understand the complexities that surround the Cuban condition. Cuba’s poverty is a legacy of colonialism and foreign intervention from Spain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, and many of its oppressive practices against its citizens were reactions to US-led coups occurring throughout Latin America at the time. Nothing is all good or all bad; what made Cuba shocking was that it overtly practiced human rights violations… but let’s not pretend that that doesn’t happen in the United States in the guise of systemic oppression.
TLDR; Please read the book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Julia E. Sweig.