This October we approach the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and have just recently passed the 50-year mark of the U.S. embargo against our island neighbor. Fewer and fewer of us remember those harrowing days and with ever-diminishing clarity.
Still, our nations’ relationship, forged under the threat of nuclear destruction, the contagion of communism, and Cuban nationalization of U.S. interests, seems stuck in the 1960s, along with our memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Woodstock and Bob Dylan. We are hardly aware that Cuba suffered a different crisis in the early 1990s, a hunger crisis when the USSR fell and ceased to trade sugar, coffee and cigars for staples. The Cuban cupboard lost 75 percent of its contents in about a week.
With a desire to bridge these decades of restricted contact and communication, 12 other instructors of Spanish and Latin American history and I secured a license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to travel to Cuba this past July. We worked hard on this opportunity because we knew it might be our only visit. And once we arrived, two collaborative organizations packed our days with discussions on Cuban social structures, philosophy and history, guided by experts in fields as varied as medicine, politics, religion and the arts. But between visits to various institutions and museums, we, being fluent in Spanish, found our own informants on the streets, in markets and at churros stands, and peppered them with questions.
Were Cubans free to be honest? With the Pope’s visit in 2010, Raúl Castro arranged for the release of almost all of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. Among our contacts, only a few of the elderly looked over their shoulders first, before enumerating their government’s successes and failures, promises kept and broken. Some Cubans spoke of complaints matter-of-factly; a few railed against the government with no apparent concern for who was in earshot.
What did I learn? Change is afoot in Cuba. While it has never been illegal to claim a religious belief, it has only recently become illegal even for the Communist Party to discriminate against someone on the basis of religion. Three years ago political leadership also held extensive public comment and debate, from the neighborhood level up through the National Assembly, in order to solve their nation’s toughest problems. A number of proposals were presented, passed, and are now in effect.
Admittedly, the attempts at change are creating unanticipated complications, but the attempts remain significant. Now, under some circumstances, Cubans may own a residence, a car, or a small business in one of 200 areas of enterprise. Authorities have lifted the outright ban on private cell phones and computers. Raúl has defined term limits following his departure from politics and has called for true and meaningful debate in the National Assembly. The new ‘alignments’ meant to ‘update’ the revolution could be a bud of new hope for our relations, and more importantly the chance for a full flowering of the Cuban culture and people, a highly educated, strong-willed and resourceful people.
As outsiders, we could not miss the patriotic messages that replace the otherwise commercial spaces for advertisements and billboards. In some of these, it is clear that the Cold War lives on, perpetuated by the prolonged and evolving embargo, where two current themes dominate in popular and political understanding of the U.S.-Cuban standoff.
The most enduring of these is clear: To the Cubans, the U.S. is an imposing, mettlesome neighbor with designs to undermine Cuban sovereignty. But we have also become a force that unites a nation, that gives a young government reason to be paranoid, and, above all, an iron will to survive and thrive in the face of any threats.
Survive they have, boasting accomplishments that stymie others, by focusing on the culture of the arts and the mind. Cubans — we were impressed to observe on our trip — virtually wiped out illiteracy in one year and reinvented their own agricultural industry in a matter of two to three years. They export more home-grown medical doctors to the world’s needy than the World Health Organization, maintain life expectancy and birth rates equal to ours, have become an international magnet for the study of film, and seem to have eliminated extreme poverty. Yet today the average income there hovers around $32 a month.
History and human nature teach us that harsh measures can often provoke harsh reactions. Cuba reacted to our Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 with a vote to make socialism permanent. The most recently reiterated condition to lifting the embargo is that Cuba moves toward democracy and a free economy. Perhaps it is time for us, too, to consider a change. If we eliminate the boundaries, what kind of blossoms might unfold?
Leasa Y. Lutes is a professor of foreign languages at Gordon College in Wenham. She lives in Beverly.