A Mental Journey

This semester, I learned a lot of things. I learned Rene Descartes never actually said “I think therefore I am.” I learned about Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw’s influence on modern drama. I learned Cuban streets are paved with Massachusetts stones. I learned about anti-discrimination lawsuits against straight players on a gay softball team. Most importantly, however, I learned politics is really hard. The line between good and evil is not a line at all, but a vague, shapeless form that stretches and moves situationally. In learning about Cuban politics, I learned so much about my place in the world and my outlook on the world.

Growing up, I had very black and white beliefs. One of them was that America could do no wrong, and another was that Fidel Castro was a bad man. Taking this class, I was shocked to learn just how nuanced and complicated the issue is. I didn’t understand the trade embargo, I had no idea about the Platt Amendment or the Helms-Burton Act, and I had never consider the positive aspects of socialism. Simply put, I had way oversimplified Cuban-American relations in my mind. In preparing for my physical journey and traveling to Cuba, I took a kind of mental journey as well. I began to understand that they world doesn’t exist in blacks and whites, but many shades of grey.

What was most startling to me is the universal healthcare Cubans enjoy, and the quality of their preventative care. Though the medical supplies aren’t always easily or cheaply accessible, they still have a fundamental right that is denied to Americans by their legislators. When Richard Nixon refused to say the word “AIDS,” Fidel Castro was asking Cuban doctors to begin researching a cure. However, Castro then quarantined all infected individuals, effectively imprisoning them. Did he handle the situation appropriately? Moreso than Nixon?

What about the United States’s continuous involvement in Cuban affairs even though they’re a sovereign nation? Until recently, Cuba has been on the US Terrorist Sponsor list, making it difficult for other nations to trade with Cuba without facing trouble with America. Do we have the right to exercise control over them, even if they’re violating human rights codes? Are we really the better nation in this circumstance?

These questions haunted me at night. I thought for weeks about whether Obama was correct in taking away Wet Foot/Dry Foot after lifting the embargo. I felt immensely guilty for needing a class to begin paying attention to one of our closest neighbors to the south. But most importantly, I was thinking about them. For the first time in my life, I considered that socialism might be a good model, if implemented differently. The United States was not the benevolent power I once thought they were. I was beginning to question my views of the world, and therein lies the true meaning of college and a liberal education.

Preparing for this trip has changed my life. I have no doubt the trip itself will be even more impactful, and I can’t wait to take the physical journey I’ve been mentally on since January.

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AIDS on the Island

In 1983, two years before the American president would acknowledge the AIDS virus, Fidel Castro asked a team of Cuban doctors to keep an eye out for a new virus called HIV, which he believed to be the next great epidemic. He was correct.

Next up was a firestorm of mandatory testing, preventative education, and interrogation. They began the controversial practice of mandatory quarantine, though the government preferred to call them “sanatariums.” All positive carriers of the virus were locked together and essentially imprisoned; they couldn’t travel outside the sanatarium except on weekends and with an escort. Testing was mandatory, and the government at times tended to be quietly homophobic. Ronald Bayer, a reporter for the LA Times, was one of the first Americans to visit a Cuban sanatarium, which he called “pleasant but frightening in its implications… [it is] incarceration based on supposed future behavior.” The government reasoned that the interests of public health outweighed the rights of the individuals. Ethical concerns aside, the program was effective until its end in 1993; Cuba has one of the lowest infection rates in the world. Only 14,038 cases and 2,000 deaths have been reported, which is shocking considering the island has roughly the same population as New York City, which suffered more than five times that amount of infection. Since 1986, only 38 babies have been born with the virus and, despite Cuba having more than 20 strains of the virus, only 0.1% of their people are infected.

What is the cause of these low infection rates, and what is Cuba doing differently than the U.S. to keep them healthy? The main creditor is their free and universal healthcare. Their doctors are champions of preventative care, and keep an eye on at-risk and infected patients. Safe sex is taught early and often in schools, and condoms are often sold in places frequented by young people. 77% of sex workers report using condoms, and heroin (a common transmitter of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.) use is virtually non-existent on the island. If a mother is found to be HIV-positive during her two mandatory pre-natal screenings, she is given antiretroviral drugs. They also plan a cesarean section and provide her with infant formula to prevent transmitting the virus to the baby. All of these factors, along with Fidel’s early enthusiasm for fighting the virus, have helped curb the spread of the disease on the island. Though Cuban students, doctors, and workers often leave the island and come back, bringing back different strains and increasing risk of infection, they have maintained one of the lowest infection rates in the world.
However, along with these testing and diagnosis procedures comes a lack of privacy— officials will pry into your private life and ask who you’ve slept with and when in order to track down potential carriers. Though answering is voluntary, peer pressure and guilt makes patients willing to divulge details.

Since the end of mandatory quarantine, cases per year are slowly beginning to rise. New, more effective medicines take a long time to reach Cubans because of cost and trade restrictions. Hopefully the strength of preventative care can once again keep Cubans healthy.

Far Away Family

When learning this week about Cuban-American immigration, I remembered an old childhood friend named Megan. We went to summer camp together and danced at the same studio my senior year of high school. She had mentioned her family was Cuban, so I reached out to her this week to get a little bit more information about her experience living in America with family on the island. What was the tone growing up surrounding Castro? How did she understand the world through this Cuban-American perspective?

Almost all of her family is in Cuba aside from her grandmother, her mother and her sisters, and their children. Her family tree was massive (I couldn’t even attempt to understand) but she estimates there are about eighty family members in Cuba that she still speaks to regularly. They’re based in Camaguey, but are spread throughout the island. She visited often as a little girl, but says now it is easier and cheaper than ever to get flights from Orlando to Havana. She’ll even be there the same time we are! Her grandmother splits her time completely between Cuba and America, but Megan didn’t elaborate on logistics.

Her family in America “did not like Castro. I don’t think any family that fled Cuba liked Castro… they probably wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of fleeing.” She recounted one of the pranks her mother would pull on her aunts and uncles: she would call and tell them Fidel died. I can only imagine the kind of boy-who-cried wolf situation they were in last year! However, her family in Cuba have much more communist attitudes, which she attributes to “what they were told to believe.” She also senses anti-American ideas among her cousins in Cuba, because so many Cubans who left for American and then returned talk about how hard life in the states was for them. I can imagine it’s difficult to grapple with feelings of love for your American cousins while also leaning against them politically. The biggest strain placed on their relationship, however, is communication. It is difficult for them to get supplies, clothes and medicine. The addition of cell phones and Facebook helped, since the only way to speak before was a form of Skype, hosted by another family a town over.

Everyone in her family in America (besides she and her sister) are Cuban immigrants. She hesitated to share their stories for fear of revealing sensitive information, but did tell me her mother left Cuba at 15 to live with Megan’s great-grandfather, who himself left at 17 to escape the Spanish Civil War.

I then asked her about Obama and Trump’s views on Cuba, and her family’s reaction to them. She called Obama’s policies “blessings even to those in Cuba,” but thought some more Republican Cubans would surely disagree. However, his removal of the wet foot/dry foot policy was very upsetting to them. The policy allowed Cubans to fast-track a path to citizenship as soon as they reached dry land; taking it away made it a more cumbersome process. Megan expressed significant concern on behalf of her family in Cuba who planned to emigrate.

However, Megan said she wouldn’t change her heritage for the world. Her favorite memory of Cuba was her Quinceanera, which happened to fall on the same weekend as Carnaval. She described chasing behind a conga line as a little girl, and the different celebrations every day during the holiday.

Broadway in Havana: The implications of RENT in Cuba

On Christmas Eve, 2014, the smash hit RENT was the first Broadway musical to open in Cuban in over fifty years. Just one week earlier, President Obama reopened diplomatic relations on the island. This was however, entirely coincidental timing. Robert Nederlander Jr. worked for over a year on negotiating and coordinating this venture, getting all of the paperwork and rights in place, then casting and beginning rehearsals. Bringing Broadway to Havana has a huge impact on the Cuban community and the theatrical community, and RENT is an especially poignant way to begin.

Beyond being a method of cultural transference and social commentary, theatre is a sign of a successful city. If citizens can afford theater tickets and the shows are high quality, the art supports the economy and the city thrives. It also adds a level of sophistication to the cultural landscape. Bringing this caliber of theatre to Havana is a social cue that the government is doing well, the economy is thriving, and art is allowed to be both diverse and complex. (It should be noted that these things don’t actually have to be true— they just make it seem like things are better than they are.)

Furthermore, this marks a convergence between the American and Cuban industries. The Cuban system is fundamentally different from the American one; the main difference is that everyone in Cuba must be employed. Cubans often cast within their troupes, or theatre companies choose shows based on those they already employed. Now with RENT, the American system is creeping onto the island. It is most definitely a capitalist system, which will clash with Castro’s administration. Casting Cubans and presenting it to Cubans is another important element in the incorporation of native culture, since seeing a story told by and for the country’s people gives it additional impact.

What motivated Nederlander to pick RENT? Well, RENT did for the late 1990s what Hamilton did for 2015: it brought theatre into the public realm of thought. Everyone knew RENT, even if they didn’t know any other musicals. It was a phenomenon that turned Broadway form niche to mainstream. That kind of broad appeal is necessary when introducing musical theatre to a new audience. Especially in Cuba, where musical theatre is a lost art, the public needs a popular and well-liked show to bridge the divide. The themes of the show transcend government and even social systems, and everyone can find something to connect with. It is also an easy show to stage: minimalist sets, almost no costumes, and little to no extravagance.

The show will run for three months and tickets are only 50 cents. Nederlander and the entire company insist it’s not about the profit, but about bringing people closer to this art form. But what impact does this production have on the future of Cuban theatre? Well, it seems entirely possible that this is the only American production in Cuba for some time. Bringing our capitalist industry to Cuba would not mesh well with the socialist government structure. However, this could lead into a new dawn for the Cuban theatre industry, in which it is partially privatized and artists and creators are given more freedom of expression and creativity.

A Snake Eating its Tail: U.S.-Cuban Relations

The United States government does not have the right to impose an embargo on Cuba. The Helms-Burton Law is unethical, the Platt Amendment is morally wrong, and we never should have gotten involved in their business in the first place. There! I said it! I got all my radical opinions out of the way at the start of this post. American involvement in Cuba is not warranted because it assumes from the outset that we as a country have the power and prepossession to dictate what another country should be doing with their government. (By the way, it is a little bit ironic that we are exercising unjustified control over a country we condemn because their leader exercises unjustified control.)

Since I believe we do not have the right to control their government, you would probably assume I think President Trump should immediately lift the embargo so Cubans can exist independently. However, the situation is far more nuanced than that. The embargo is intended to force Cuba to transition to a democracy, but the embargo itself prevents them from doing so. I would like to clarify that I don’t believe the Cuban government is good or ethical in any way, and I firmly believe a democracy is the strongest and safest government system. Regardless of any other factors, it is wrong for a state to attempt control of another state without provocation or reason.

The important thing to remember is that American interference developed an anti-American rhetoric, which led to the Castro regime, which created the embargo out of revenge, which has prevented the dissemination of information to the Cuban people, which has kept them in the dark about (quite literally) everything, which has prevented them from doing what the American government wants them to do (rise up and fight their state leaders), which keeps the embargo enacted. We caused the problem, punished the Cuban people for it, and are preventing them from improving their conditions and solving the problem. Our continued contention with Cuba is a self-perpetuating cycle that is unlikely to be solved by one president, though Obama opened the door for discussion in 2014.

So, in this complicated political and ideological landscape, what should President Trump do about Cuba? The embargo was originally intended to oust Castro’s administration, though this is unlikely after half a century in power. Now, it serves as a bargaining chip, an oppressor of the Cuban people, and a complex political issue buried under the rug by other, more relevant topics. There are a few courses of action the president could take, each with their own drawbacks and benefits:

  1. Attempt to remove the embargo completely.
  2. Tighten the embargo and reinstate a stricter travel ban.
  3. Keep the regulations as they were under the Obama administration.

Opening U.S.-Cuban relations could allow the Cuban economy to grow, promote collaboration with third-party nations, and improve the friendship between our countries. It is impossible to know exactly what effect dissolving the embargo will have on both countries, and falling down that rabbit hole could be potentially disastrous for both governments. Additionally, removing the embargo completely is not feasible. The Helms-Burton Law solidified the executive actions taken by previous presidents into law, making them impossible to remove without an act of Congress. This is why Obama couldn’t do more in 2014 to open relations and, with a Republican controlled House and Senate, Trump is not likely to either.

If Trump were to tighten the embargo and reinstate a travel ban, there are a few hiccups which could hinder his plan. To begin, it’s simply bad for Trump’s personal interests to close off Cuba economically. We’re well aware he has no interest in separating his business and his presidency; if he intends to build hotels in Havana, why would he prevent American tourists from staying in them? Furthermore, restricting American liberties, including the right to travel, is not in his doctrine. Taking a hard line on Cuba would also be an addition to a laundry list of issues he’s writing executive orders on. Between the Mexican border wall, repealing Obamacare, the Muslim ban, the Second Amendment, and women’s rights, he’s a busy man. Adding Cuban relations to the mix will only overwhelm his constituents and draw his energies away from the cornerstones of his administration.

Finally, Trump could leave Cuban relations as they are with Obama’s policies in place, which is undoubtably the best option for him. By changing nothing, Trump keeps his hands clean and allows the global community time to adjust to this new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Furthermore, he doesn’t have to risk anything; the blame falls on Obama if something were to go wrong, and Trump will be praised for keeping it if it succeeds. For someone so invested in other endeavors, it may be best to let this one slip into the shadows for the time being.

The issue of Cuba’s relationship with the United States is incredibly complicated. Even after researching and developing my ideas, I still feel like I understand only a tiny portion of the embargo, and that itself is only a tiny portion of Cuba’s history. However, all of the articles and research screamed one thing loud and clear: the United States’ embargo on Cuba exists for the former to dominate the latter. From the time the sanctions were written to the writing of this article, much has changed in our global dialogue, and our policies with our southern neighbor should reflect this modernization as well.