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May 10, 2005

Cuba, a Country of Contradictions

Living Room Dialogue with Laura Fernandez

Laura Fernandez and Cathryn Magno described their recent experience in Cuba at this Living Room Dialogue. Twenty-two people attended, most of whom had a personal connection with the country. Some were exiles who had fled Cuba after the revolution, others had only visited, but all had strong feelings about island, the fate of its people, and its place in the world. The repressive aspects of the Castro government were exposed but love and respect for Cuba's accomplishments were also revealed.

Cathryn began by describing the conference on comparative education that they attended where they gave a presentation on Youth Practicing Democracy, a project they have been involved with in East Harlem. About 700 people from all over the world attended this conference. Studies in comparative education examine educational systems as a way to understanding the larger society in which they are embedded.

Laura and Cathryn's presentation came on a day on which the UN General Assembly had voted on a resolution to end the Cuban embargo. The United States voted against this resolution. Just before they were to speak, Cubans denounced the U.S. for its policies toward their country. Nevertheless, Laura and Cathryn received a respectful hearing about their program dealing with human rights and about the difficulties many young people encounter in New York City schools. On the other hand, it seemed to them the Cuban educators spoke only about the virtues of the Cuban system and revealed nothing about places where it falls short.

Laura spoke about the personal impact of the experience for her in returning to the country of her father. Her father was an art historian with little interest in politics who had been accused of a political crime, imprisoned, and then forced into exile. There was a huge sense of loss in the family, and she described the anxieties and occasional bitterness of a man who had "lost his whole country." In Cuba, she was able to visit his old home and established an instant close connection with a cousin who still resides there but is waiting anxiously for permission to leave the country.

Their impression of the Cuban economy at the present was that there are three income levels: the lowest that of people living at subsistence, with government assurance of a minimal ration of two meals a day of rice and beans; next that of people working in hotels and in the tourist industry who had access to dollars and thus a few luxuries (such as shampoo and medicines); and that of people working for associated with the government. Tourism has brought both blessings and problems – the dollars and the few "luxuries" vs. such things as greater social inequity and prostitution.

They also had a sense that there was general anxiety among people because there could be harsh consequences if a rule was broken, but the rules could change suddenly. For example, a rule was suddenly being enforced strictly that people could not use their own cars to take around tourists, which for Laura and Cathryn meant they did a lot of walking.

In the dialogue following their talk, some guests who were exiles from the country were moved to speak of their own experiences of the revolution. They told of having to leave all their often modest possessions behind them, of having their businesses confiscated, bank accounts frozen. The only asset they were allowed when leaving was $10 in U.S. currency. They told of their fears that if they did not depart their children would be taken from them and sent to the mountains as pioneers of the revolution or sent to Russia. They said parents then had no rights over their children. One person recalled that three cousins were imprisoned for eight years for avoiding military service. Another recalled the Peter Pan movement sponsored by the Catholic Church in which 14,000 young children were separated from their parents, brought to the U.S. and resettled here.

There were other reminders of the repressive elements of the Castro regime. For example, one guest noted the large number of people in prison under "inhuman conditions" and said that the Red Cross had been unable to visit them since 1988. He asserted that government patrol boats circling the island made the whole place a prison.

There were also appreciations of Cuban accomplishments. A guest who was born and raised in Africa talked about his appreciation of Cuba's support for the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and when South Africa invaded Angola, Cuba was again on the right side, in his opinion. A guest who is an employee at the UN spoke about the appreciation among many countries there for the technical assistance Cuba has provided them.

This led to a discussion of education in Cuba and the large numbers of Cuban professionals abroad. One person talked about nieces and nephews in Cuba who had been given professional training that they probably would not have received prior to the Revolution. Opportunities for professional training have been provided to people from other countries as well, including Americans who have received medical training there. On the one hand, the Cuban educational system has trained so many professionals there are not enough jobs for them at home, one person said. On the other, an anti-Castro person claimed the 80,000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela were under surveillance by private Cuban police to make sure they didn't defect.

Education was said to have declined since the withdrawal of subsidies from the former Soviet Union. Standards are not as high. The Children of the Children of the Revolution are not enjoying the same educational benefits as their parents.

There were many expressions of affection for Cuba in the final go-round as well as regrets. Appreciation for the loving natures of people found there and for the ingenuity of people who "can even make mayonnaise out of potatoes."

Here are some of the final comments when people were asked what they had learned in the evening or had been reinforced in the evening:

  • What I experienced on my visit was that there was a lot of love there.
  • This evening made me think about the way families are fractured by the policies of governments.
  • I see no future for Cuba if people who left return in a spirit of vengeance. There must be forgiveness, but that will be hard for some people.
  • During my last visit, when a piñata was broken at a party, the older children who had collected the most candy went around sharing theirs with children who had less. That's what I saw.
  • I reflected on the psychology of exile. I am an exile, too. I am also thinking that there is something to be said for a tiny island that has been able to stand up against to the United States. I am also remembering a video of a music festival, where I saw children working hard and pulling together.
  • People's views this evening have reflected their personal experience. In my experience people in Cuba have an innocence; they don't look at color or race. I've seen a willingness of people to help one another.
  • It has been good to remember leaving Cuba as a child and then going back as an adult. People there are very loving and share whatever they have.
  • The distinction between the Children of the Revolution and the Children of the Children of the Revolution was helpful. The revolution accomplished a lot of things but the situation is different with the collapse of the Soviet Union along with the boycott by the United States.
  • There are both wonderful and sad things in Cuba. People are making the best of things. One nice feature is not seeing things like Coca Cola and Starbucks there. I'd like to see how not to destroy what's wonderful.
  • It's been useful to look at the consequences of the revolution for those in the generation uprooted by the revolution and also for those who participated in the experience. It's possible to admire much of what was accomplished but also to take account of the suffering. Cubans are trying to hold on to their achievements in trying to create an economy not dominated by money. It's interesting to think about what Cuba would look like if they had been permitted to build on their accomplishments. I have admired the way people have listened to one another here. I will leave with a greater sensitivity to those with different views. When we hear the experiences of others, it adds to our assessment of what is happening. The Children of the Children of Baby Boomers are also experiencing a decline in standards. This is a world-wide phenomenon. Younger generations are living under worse conditions than their elders.

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