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Vamos Bien Fidel 11 26 2016

The Cuban People Are Not Our Enemies – Todos Somos Americanos

Robert García The City Project

Bienvenido a Cuba
Bienvenidos a Cuba!

There’s hope for improvement in Cuba-US relations in the wake of US President Barack Obama meeting in Habana with Cuban President Raul Castro recently. President Obama visited Cuba with his wife Michelle, two daughters Malia and Sasha, and mother in law Marian for three days in March, the first time a US president had visited the island nation in 88 years. A few days later the Rolling Stones performed a free concert for 500,000 people. History will look back to the time before Obama and the Stones visited Cuba, and after. My son Sam and I were in Habana, on my fourth trip to Cuba and Sam’s first.

How will improved relations between Cuba and the US affect each nation? Will lifting the blockade or embargo and increased trade and tourism mark the triumph of US style capitalism and democracy over socialism and repression in Cuba? Will lessons from the Cuban Revolution lead to improved equal rights and social justice in the US? Both nations and the world have changed in the decades since the Revolution in 1959, the US embargo – or blockade in Cuba – in 1961, and the end of the Cold War. Each continues to evolve in ways that reflect national myths and political economies. What do Cuban people say? How is Cuba doing compared to the US, including Puerto Rico, and other Latin American nations, such as Guatemala?

One Cuban engineer told us, “Obama came with his family. That is very important. They left the hatchet at home. He came here for peace. The people of the US will see that we Cubans are not so bad. We are friends and neighbors.”

President Obama visited the island with 40 Congressional representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, along with business leaders and Cuban Americans. The delegation apparently did not include civil society leaders focused on equal justice, public health, education, culture, art, and music, and environmental protection – values shared with the Revolution.

President Obama on the Malecon backlit by the Caribbean sky, March 21, 2016
President Obama on the Malecon backlit by the Caribbean sky, March 21, 2016

Relations between Cuba and the US reflect complex differences in political economy and governance. Upcoming changes in each nation will determine whether relations with Cuba continue to improve or are rolled back.

Cuba is a socialist economy with central planning, state enterprise with a small and growing private sector, and control by the Communist Party and the military. Cuba is expected to announce a series of economic, political, and electoral reforms in April as Raul Castro prepares to step down as president in 2018.

The narrative of US capitalism and democracy is based on a market based economy, political leaders elected by the people, and individual rights including freedom of expression, association, and religion. The 2016 elections reflect differences among candidates from right to left. Conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and progressives vary on the primacy of property rights, the strength and size of government, economic regulation, income tax rates, welfare state programs to promote economic well-being for all members of society, personal and political freedoms, and affirmative action in education and employment to promote opportunity. Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. The election will determine the future of US-Cuba relations.

Health Care, Education, Equality, and Freedom

Cubans are proud of their accomplishments under the Revolution, despite decades of economic problems under the US economic, financial, and travel blockade. Being a small island nation that stands up to the US and shakes the world, universal health care, free education, equal pay for women and men, and culture, music, and art – these are major accomplishments. At the joint conference with President Obama on March 21, President Castro asked the press, “Do you think there’s any more sacred right than the right to health, so that billions of children don’t die just for the lack of a vaccine or a drug or a medication? Do you agree with the right to free education for all those born anywhere in the world or in any country? I think many countries don’t think these are human rights.” Indeed, health care and education are not recognized as human rights in the US.

A sociology professor at the University of Habana told us, “We have had free health care and education under the Revolution, under the Soviet bloc, during the Special Period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now. There is no reason to think Cuban society will leave the good behind. Lifting the blockade will be good for Cuba and for the US. Cuba will not become like the US. Russia and China have not done so. There is no other nation like the US.” The professor is counting on an economy based on knowledge and a well educated population, not a tourist economy, an “econoía de postre” (“dessert economy”). Cuba did receive a record 3.5 million visitors last year, up 17% from 2014, with US visitors up 77% to 161,000.

Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticos
Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticos

Universal free quality health care is a human right under the Cuban constitution. Life expectancy for a baby born in 2011 was 79 years in Cuba, according to the World Bank. Life expectancy is longer in Cuba than in the US, where there are disparities in life expectancy based on income, wealth, race, and where you live. Cuba’s doctor-to-patient ratio is among the best three in the world, according to data from the World Health Organization. Every pregnant woman receives prenatal care, and every child is born in a hospital, according to President Castro. Cuba sent more health care workers to help stop Ebola in West Africa than other nations. While the US blockade hurts the people of Cuba, the blockade hurts the people of the US as well. Cuba has a vaccine against lung cancer, for example, that the blockade prohibits in the US. “Cuba does not export revolution, we share what we have with nations in need,” in the eyes of the Cuban engineer. The tradition of selfless dedication to medical care is inspired in part by Che Guevara, who was a medical doctor in Argentina before becoming a hero of the Revolution.

Congressional Democrats passed Obamacare without a single Republican vote in 2010, which is having a big effect in reducing disparities in insurance coverage between rich and poor while adding 20 million people to the ranks of the insured. The law is not close to achieving universal or free medical coverage. High premiums and deductibles still make coverage a crushing financial burden for many families. Only 67% of Hispanics are covered, in part because Obamacare does not cover 11 million undocumented workers. Black folks disproportionately live in 19 states, mostly Confederate states, that chose not to expand Medicaid coverage for the poor. Republicans routinely try to repeal the law.

Cuba has the best education system in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank. The literacy rate is over 90 percent, even in rural parts of the island. In contrast, 53% of working-age residents of Los Angeles have trouble reading street signs or bus schedules, filling out job applications in English, or understanding a utility bill, according to the L.A. Times. The US average is 48%. Cuba provides free education through professional and graduate school.

A majority of US public school students live in poverty (qualify for free or reduced price meals). People who can afford to do so commonly pull their children out of public schools in favor of private academies. Low income students trail more privileged children and rarely catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities in or out of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college. US students more and more are saddled with increasing tuition payments for college and advanced degrees, and years of student debt at above market rates. The myth of education as the great equalizer remains out of reach for many US families.

Ministerio de Salud Público Hospital Pediatrico
Ministerio de Salud Público Hospital Pediatrico

The Revolution banned racial discrimination in the work place beginning in 1959, although disparities remain for AfroCuban in leadership roles.

The US banned Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination remains ubiquitous in crucial spheres like income, wealth, housing, education, and health. The racial and ethnic wealth gaps in the US in 2013 were at or near their highest levels in the 30 years for which there is data. The US Supreme Court in 2015 held that prohibiting discrimination under the Fair Housing Act remains necessary to help move the US away from residential segregation toward equal opportunity for all. While the average white or Asian-American student attends a school in at least the 60th percentile in test performance, the average black student attends a school at the 37th percentile. Lead poisoning is more than twice as common among black children as among white children. And so on.

In 2000, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the father of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, talked with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather about why he wanted to take his son back to Cuba. Elian became the center of an international struggle when he was rescued from the Florida Straights and taken to Miami after his mother drowned attempting to leave Cuba with him. Mr. Rather asked, “Tell me why it wouldn’t be best for you to say okay I’ll, I’ll stay in the USA, I’ll stay here with my child, where there is freedom and maybe more opportunity for him.” Mr. Gonzalez replied, “Well, what do you call freedom and opportunity? . . . Well, freedom is for example, in Cuba, where education and health care is free. Or is it the way it is here? Which of the two is freedom? For example, here when parents send their children to school they have to worry about violence. A child could be shot at school. In Cuba, things like that don’t happen. So you can go to work and not worry. Which of the two is freedom?” Mr. Gonzalez concluded, “I love Cuba. That’s where I want to live, that’s where I want my son to be raised at my side. . . . In Cuba I can do what I want to do.”

Human Rights, Self-Determination, and Political Prisoners

Questions of human rights, national self-determination, democracy, and political prisoners are intertwined. President Obama at the press conference emphasized that serious differences remain between the US and Cuba in these areas, suggesting that the US record is better than Cuba’s. Is that true?

Cuban people waiting for President Obama on the Malecon
Cuban people waiting for President Obama on the Malecon

The US acts with impunity in violating human rights conventions and customary international law. The UN, for example, has condemned the US blockade of Cuba as a violation of international law for 24 years in a row, with only the US and Israel opposing the resolution in 2015.

The US intentionally infected innocent Guatemalan people with sexually transmitted diseases without their knowledge or consent beginning in the 1940s and has left them untreated and uncompensated to the present day. The Guatemala presidential report documents that these actions constitute crimes against humanity, violate international and domestic laws, and reflect discrimination by the US against Guatemala, and within Guatemala by elites against marginalized people including Mayans. The US presidential report, on the other hand, while conceding the actions are “ethically impossible,” remains silent on the illegality and discrimination. The silence is a tacit admission. The US “Common Rule” governing human medical experimentation is virtually silent on experiments abroad, making it easier for Big Pharma to profit from experiments that would be prohibited in the US.

President Castro was asked about political prisoners at the press conference. President Castro implied there are no political prisoners in Cuba because all prisoners are criminals. That’s the predictable response of any government; who is a political prisoner remains difficult to define. President Obama met with leading Cuban dissidents the next day in “an atmosphere of closeness and trust,” according to one leader. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation identified 89 political prisoners during that meeting.

Jose Marti, Poet of Cuban Independence
José Martí, Poet of Cuban Independence

No one asked President Obama about political prisoners, lawless detentions, and torture in Guantanamo and other secret prisons where hundreds have been held, guilty of no crime, some for more than a decade. The New York Times cites Guantanamo as “essentially a political prison.” Military intelligence officials told the Red Cross that 70 to 90% of the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were tortured, had been arrested by mistake.

Racialization makes criminal justice political in nature in the US, with discriminatory police mistreatment of boys and men of color, mass incarceration rates, and imposition of the death penalty. Blacks and Latinos tend to receive longer prison terms than non-Hispanic whites for similar crimes. The Black Lives Matter movement rebels against police killings of Black men. A city task force in Chicago recently found that in a city where whites, blacks and Hispanics each make up about one-third of the population, 74% of the 404 people shot by the Chicago police between 2008 and 2015 were black. The police department’s “own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” according to the report. For the seventh year in a row, the US was the only country to carry out executions in the Americas in 2015. The US Supreme Court upheld capital punishment in the face of unrefuted evidence that juries disproportionately impose the death penalty based on the race of the victim, suggesting juries – and the Court – value black lives less.

Economic Inequality

How is the Cuban economy doing under socialism and the blockade? The gross domestic product (GDP) in Cuba was about $6,800 per person in 2013, compared to about $53,000 in the US – and $3,400 in the US-dominated, free market political economy of Guatemala. Differences in income and wealth are relatively flat in Cuba.

US Embassy flag flies in Habana for first time in 54 years
US Embassy flies US flag in Habana for the first time in 54 years

In contrast, in the US inequality in wage income is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,” according to Prof. Thomas Piketty of the University of Paris. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 triggered an explosion of inequality, tax cuts, downsized government and social services, and deregulation, as well as a stagnation of revenues for most of the nation accompanied by low growth. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the US was at the vanguard of progressive tax, minimum wage, and and social safety net policies designed to reduce inequality. From 1930 to 1980, the marginal tax rate for the highest US income (over $1 million per year) was 82% on average, and still as high as 70% in 1980. Tax burdens on high-income elites have fallen across the board since then, with the marginal rate topping out at about 40% in 2013. Blacks and Latinos at all education levels earn less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The median wealth of non-Hispanic white households was more than 10 times that of Hispanic households in 2013, and 13 times that of black households.

Women in the US make about 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to census data. A woman who works full time in California makes a median salary of $42,486, compared with $50,539 for a man. Latina women earn just 43 cents for every dollar earned by a white man, Black women 63 cents, and Asian women 72 cents.

How is Cuba doing compared to democracy and capitalism in Puerto Rico, a territory and colony of the US? President Obama criticizes Cuba for not giving people the right to vote. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but they cannot vote for president, and have no senator or Congressional representative. The island’s economy, which produced about $29,000 GDP per person in 2013, has been in recession for a decade. In Puerto Rico 45% of the people live in poverty. In contrast to education and health in Cuba, more than 150 schools have closed. Puerto Rico’s largest pediatric hospital has been forced to close two wings and 40 rooms, and cannot afford to hire the nurses it needs. The island faces a public health emergency as the Zika virus spreads. Doctors, engineers, accountants, blue-collar workers, and entire families are emigrating daily. Puerto Rico has lost 9% of its population in the last decade.

Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Does Cuba export terrorism? Does the US?

Pope Francis in Cuba
Pope Francis in Cuba

The US overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and backed military dictatorships over the next 50 years, resulting in the killing of 200,000 Guatemalan people, the disappearance of 50,000 others, and the kidnapping of countless more, according to Catholic Church and UN truth commissions. The US School of the Americas has trained and backed military regimes, genocide, and active death squads throughout Latin America for decades. Guatemala in 1954 and Iran in 1953 are generally seen as beginning of regime change through military force to protect US style democracy and business. William Blum’s book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II lists in Latin America, for example, Guatemala (1954); Ecuador (1961 & 1963); Brazil (1964); the Dominican Republic (1963); Argentina (1963); Honduras (1963 & 2009); Bolivia (1964, 1971 & 1980); Panama (1968 & 1989); Chile (1973); Grenada (1983); Paraguay (1989); and Haiti (1991 & 2004). This list does not include failed coups such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961, the US threat of nuclear annihilation against Cuba in 1962, coups in which a US role is suspected but not proven, coups outside Latin America and Haiti – or the destabilizing and violent impact of the US War on Drugs.

President Obama criticizes Cuba for repressing dissent. Regime change, killings, and disappearances are extreme forms of suppressing self-determination and democracy.

The Cuban Revolution overthrew the murderous US backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959. The Revolution and Che Guevara inspired generations of resistance, rebellion, and revolution in Latin America including liberation theology, people including priests and nuns fighting or dying for self-determination. Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera, the Archbishop of Guatemala and a human rights defender, was bludgeoned to death in the garage of the Cathedral for publishing the report by the Catholic Church Guatemala: Nunca Más! The report documented the killing of 200,000 Guatemalan people, disappearing of 50,000 others, and kidnapping of countless more, mostly by the US backed military. A history professor at the University of Habana who teaches courses on social movements in both countries told us that no one in Cuba has experienced the kind of suffering the Guatemalan activists speak of in her classes.

Arca de la Liebertad, Museo de la Revolucion

Arca de la Liebertad, Museo de la Revolución

In 1991, Nelson Mandela traveled to Cuba to thank the people for fighting against apartheid and colonialism:

“The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. . . . We have come here today recognizing our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? . . . What country has ever needed help from Cuba and has not received it? How many countries threatened by imperialism or fighting for their freedom have been able to count on the support of Cuba? . . . The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor. The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa.” President Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994.

Restore Full Relations

Pastors 4 Peace Habana 2016

Pastors 4 Peace Habana 2016

President Obama told the Cuban people, “It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together — un futuro de esperanza. . . . We can make this journey as friends, and as neighbors, and as family — together.”

Yes and no. The blockade of Cuba, regime change, and other human rights violations by the US in Latin America must never be forgotten.

The Cuban engineer told us, “Obama deserves his own Cobre.” Cobre is the shrine in Santiago de Cuba to the Virgin de la Caridad, the mixed-race patron saint of Cuba who is syncretized as Ochún in the Santeria religion. “The first Black president came to see us. No white president came to Cuba. Carter came, but only after he was president. Even the Pope came to Cuba first.” The engineer is white. A Cuban waitress sighed watching President Obama’s address: “Thank God for Obama.” I turned to Sam: “How many people anywhere outside the US in the last 60 years would say ‘Thank God’ for a US president?”

Yo siento rencor contra los EE.UU.,” one young woman cuentapropista told us. “I feel resentful and bitter towards the US. My family and I have suffered personally because of the blockade. We won’t forget that.” She is taking the opportunity of eased restrictions to start an enterprise with other professionals. (Cuenta propia: a private enterprise, self employed.)

"Triunfo de la Profecia," Jesus Lara Sotelo 2012, Museo de la Revolución
“Triunfo de la Profecia,” Jesus Lara Sotelo 2012, Museo de la Revolución

Fidel wrote a column on “Brother Obama” in Granma, the official paper of the Cuban Communist Party, after President Obama’s visit: “Nobody should be under the illusion that the people of this dignified and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights, or the spiritual wealth they have gained with the development of education, science and culture. . . . [W]e are capable of producing the food and material riches we need with the efforts and intelligence of our people. We do not need the empire to give us anything. Our efforts will be legal and peaceful, as this is our commitment to peace and fraternity among all human beings who live on this planet.”

I was born in Guatemala. In Guatemala, I see ghosts, the spirits of people killed and disappeared. I came to the US with my family after the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government. I spent the summer I turned 21 in Guatemala under the US backed military dictatorship. I constantly had a knot in my stomach from fear. I saw soldiers with submachine guns, patrolling the capitol in military jeeps with their submachine guns casually draped out the windows, guarding every bank entrance, searching travelers at checkpoints in the countryside. I was afraid I would see military violence, afraid that I would be the victim of military violence. My grandmother used to tell me that lists of people killed, disappeared, and kidnapped appeared every day in the newspapers. I knew some of those people, they were relatives and friends. I lived in Spain during college, when Franco was still in power and the nation was stable and repressive after 40 years of fascism. I have been to Cuba four times, from Habana to the countryside to Santiago. I felt better in socialist Cuba than in genocidal Guatemala or fascist Spain.I felt better in socialist Cuba than in genocidal Guatemala or fascist Spain. While we were in Habana, terrorists set off bombs that killed over one hundred people in Brussels. I told Sam, “There is no place where we could be safer than in Cuba.” I have never felt fear in Cuba.

Cuba is “trying to have a rich society but without rich people; to have an entreprenuerial class but without losing the egalitarian solidarity; to have revolutionary socialism and also outside investment and growth, risk-taking, and enterprise,” David Brooks notes.

Mi corazón late Cubano – con ritmo de guaguancó!

The US should lift the blockade or embargo, restore relations with Cuba, return Guantanamo to the Cuban people, and let the Cuban people determine their own fate.

Robert García is Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project. He first worked on lifting the US blockade of Cuba in 1974, drafting the remarks and bill for Congressman Michael Harrington (D-MA) published in the Congressional Record.

Robert Garcia, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wilfredo Lam Habana 2016

Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wilfredo Lam Habana 2016

Photos of MinSap, Cuban people, Pope Francis, Sam García, and the Centro de Arte by Robert García.

Visit The City Project’s Cuba gallery on flickr